THE DOOBIES BROTHERS IN AUSTRALIA
March 15, 2006 | Author: Greg Phillips
At a time when the breezy west coast sounds of bands like America, Seals and Crofts and our own Little River Band were ruling the US air waves, and Glenn Frey, Don Henley and co were yet to become Eagles inc, The Doobies Brothers reigned supreme. As Californian as they come, The Doobies earned universal respect, not only for their beautifully constructed melodies and million selling singles like “Listen to the Music”, “Long Train Runnin'” and “What a Fool Believes”, but also for their work ethic and highly regarded musicianship. They were, and still are, a band’s band. The Doobie Brothers were recently in Australia on their ‘Summer Downunder’ tour. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with founding members Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons for a chat. Photos by Marty Williams
Since their formation in 1970, The Doobies Brothers have gone through numerous personnel changes and along the way have included some of rock music’s most respected players including guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Little Feat’s keyboardist Billy Payne. Perhaps the most famous mutation of the band was the one put together in 1975. When front man Tom Johnston, responsible for writing some of the band’s biggest hits, had to stand aside due to health problems, he was replaced by the soulful voice of Michael McDonald. The McDonald lead Doobies not only continued to churn out great tunes, but took the band’s success to a new level, with the album ‘Minute by Minute’ winning the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1979. After over a decade at the top, a farewell tour in 1983 was for all intents and purposes the end of the road for the band. However a one-off benefit concert for Vietnam veterans in 1987 created such a buzz that yet another tour was organised. By this time McDonald had left to pursue his Gospel music passion and Tommy Johnston had returned to the driver’s seat. The band has pretty much continued to tour the world ever since, not only pleasing their baby boomer fan base, but also creating a whole new younger wave of loyal followers.
The line-up that recently toured Australia is closest in sound to the original formation, showcasing The Doobies’ blues and rock based roots. Despite the line up changes and McDonald’s foray into a more soulful sound, the constants have always been the quality of players, strength of songs, amazing harmonies, dual lead guitars and the dual drum attack. Originally, the implementation of the dual drum set up was brought about due to drummer John Hartman’s wish to be heard in the small clubs above the high volume of the band’s aggressive guitar attack. Pat Simmons recalls that decision. “We were playing clubs, playing really loud. John almost got buried under the sound of the guitars and thought, you know… you’ve got two guitar players playing loud, let’s get two drummers to bash it out. The Allman Brothers were the only other band doing it at the time and I think we did it before The Grateful Dead.”
It was while they played those small clubs in San Jose in the early days that they attracted a following among motorcycle riders and biker clubs like The Hells Angels, who to this day follow the band around in many of the countries they visit. In fact the current concert opens with the roar of a Harley Davidson engine growling out of the PA system. “When we began, at almost any given time, any bar that you could play at, there would be bikers,” explains Simmons. “They wouldn’t care what type of music you played. The thing they liked about some of these bars, particularly one we played in right up in the mountains, was that they could park their bikes right up the front outside the bar. They knew nobody was going to hassle them there. The Hells Angels were there and never, ever once while I was there did I see a fight or any sort of trouble. We liked bikes too but we were too poor to have anything that was any good. So it became a bit of a mystique thing and probably our publicist made more out of it than what it was too.”
It’s not just the music that endears The Doobies Brothers to groups like the bikers and the Vietnam veterans (who adopted them as ‘their’ band after the 87′ benefit gig), it’s also the group’s philanthropic nature. They have a great sense of humility, a huge amount of respect for their fanbase, and a willingness to get behind causes they believe in. Probably their most famous stand was against nuclear energy when they took part in the MUSE (Musicians for Safe Energy) concerts alongside Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne, which sporned the live album ‘No Nukes’. However, while the band are well known for their social awareness, they are careful not to take the same road their countrywomen The Dixie Chicks took when at their shows, loudly proclaimed their opposition to the Bush administration resulting in the alienation of many of their fans.
“We’ve always tried to keep the focus on the music,” commented Simmons. “You know we’re probably a little more left than right, but I think we haven’t wanted to alienate anyone, and I think you can probably change more minds by the way you conduct yourself and by keeping your own personal views to yourself. Maybe they are known, but you don’t have to beat your audience on the head with it. I think you can change people’s minds with the music. We’ve been very supportive of returning veterans, now more than ever because of what’s going on, and we have an opportunity through the press to give our point of view, and to let veterans know that we do support them. Not necessarily the war that they are fighting, but that is not their choice. They didn’t start a war, they merely involved themselves in military exercises. I think war is the same throughout history… poor guys fighting a rich man’s war. You go through history and you’ll find that almost every war takes place
for financial gain, for somebody else besides the soldiers that are fighting it.”
The band not only use their public position to achieve social justice, they also look after their own kind. It’s not a well known fact that four members of The Doobie Brothers have passed away since 1970 and the band has always ensured that the families of their deceased ‘brothers’ are looked after through trust funds, financed from the proceeds of benefit concerts. Of course, the band’s ability to make such a difference would be drastically reduced if it wasn’t for the fact that they produce timeless music and regularly tour the world playing their hits to their fans. Like most successful recording artists, one of the downfalls of having a known catalogue of hit songs is that you are obliged to play those songs every time you hit the stage (unless you’re Bob Dylan). The perpetual challenge for bands like The Doobies Brothers is keeping the songs fresh, not just for the fans, but for their own benefit. Tommy Johnston believes the key to solving this problem can be found in the band’s nightly attitude. “I think one of the biggest things that effects how you feel about those songs is how well you are playing on the night. If you aren’t playing well, everything sucks,” he said of the dilemma. “Some nights are better than others. I mean it’s never a train wreck, but yes there are nights when you wish you could play like that every night. You get up there and play together in front of an excited crowd, they react, but also I think it is just concentrating on playing really well.”
Singer and guitarist Johnston has been a PRS guitar endorsee for many years now choosing to play a Custom 24 model that he’s done a little “hot-roddin” on. “I love PRS, the way they feel and the way they play. I play through Fender Deville Hot Rods with 2x 12’s in them. There are two, I use one for clean, crunch, rhythm and the other one strictly for soloing,” explains Tom.
Pat Simmons prefers his ‘odd-ball Strat”, a component guitar which was built for him. “It’s patterned on a guitar Jeff Baxter was playing, which I used from time to time. It was a great ‘playing’ guitar. I didn’t want it made out of maple I wanted spruce, so he made me this guitar. It’s got EMG pickups in it…active, and has like a Billy Gibbons style boost … gives me the option of going a little fatter. So, it’s nothing fancy, basically just a Stratocaster,” explains Simmons of his gear. “It has this Washburn tremolo, they don’t make them anymore, but it’s this ridiculously complex Wonderbar bridge which is fantastic because it doesn’t go out of tune. The strings are all on rollers. Once in a a while I’ll do dive bombs on it but really its just for tremelo. I can hold the strings up and get my sustain and that’s all I need. I used to use a lot of digital processors but recently chucked them all out and went back to stomp boxes. I like it more because I can shut them all off and play straight through the amp, and get my rhythm sounds. I prefer that. There’s nothing like straight guitar through an amp. Tommy’s doing that more too, as opposed to a lot of distortion. You might get a little overdrive or distortion but a lot of it is just using the amplifier and the guitar. You get that pure sound that Les Paul had when he put the whole thing together.”
Simmons plays through two 100 watt Marshall amps which feature 4×12’s. He also uses pedals modified by Oklohoma based technician Robert Keeley, a guy he stumbled across by accident. “The way I found out was that I bought a Tube Screamer and it broke down. I sent it back to where I bought it, and they said, we’ll send it to Robert Keeley … he’ll upgrade it for you. So I got it back and when I turned it back on, I had seventy percent more than what I had before. I don’t even know how to describe it, like ‘clean distortion’, that brisk level. There’s so much more edge and you hear the pitch of the guitar.”
That guitar edge was very much in evidence on this tour with the band performing spirited versions of classics like “Rockin Down the Highway’ , ‘Take Me in Your Arms’ and ‘China Grove’. The band’s incredible diversity was also on show with the inclusion of softer acoustic numbers like “Streamer Lane’ dedicated to our own Tommy Emmanuel, and the country tinged ‘Blackwater’ receiving tremendous ovations. Conveniently in this modern age, the phrase ‘Farewell tour’ has been redefined, allowing classic rock acts like The Doobie Brothers the luxury to tour as casually as they like. If the crowd reaction to their Australian shows was anything to go by, it seems the band will always be welcome downunder.