5 decades in, Doobie Brothers still rocking ahead of Pittsburgh-area show
For a band with a long history and a big catalog of hits, the trick is to give audiences what they want without getting stale creatively.
Founding member Tom Johnston says the Doobie Brothers have been able to walk that fine line.
The band, with hits like “China Grove” and “Black Water” going back to the early 1970s, has finished recording an EP of new music that should be out around the beginning of 2020, he says.
“It’s going to be different from what people expect, which is great,” Johnston says. “Moving forward is important for the band. It makes you a more valid band than just doing the same old, same old.”
Currently on a nationwide tour, the Doobies will make an Aug. 16 stop at the UPMC Events Center in Moon.
Live at the Beacon
Also new for the band is the June 28 release by Rhino Entertainment of “The Doobie Brothers Live From the Beacon Theatre,” capturing a November 2018 performance at the landmark entertainment venue on New York’s Upper West Side.
“We hadn’t played the Beacon in 25 years,” Johnston says. “I really love that place.”
The concert, featuring the band playing the “Toulouse Street” and “The Captain and Me” albums in their entirety, also premiered in June on PBS.
It was the first time the Doobies had played an entire album, let alone two, from start to finish in concert. That even meant doing songs like “Mamaloi,” “Cotton Mouth,” “Ukiah” and others that had never before been performed live.
“We started out talking about one album but, by the time the conversation was finished, it was two,” Johnston says.
That historic night will be recreated on Sept. 12 at The Masonic in the band’s hometown, San Francisco, and at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium sometime in mid-November.
Chestnuts and deep cuts
Johnston and fellow guitarist/vocalist Patrick Simmons are the two original members still with the band that has had more than two dozen players in three eras that Wikipedia labels the Original Incarnation (through the mid-’70s), the Michael McDonald Years (to the early ’80s) and the Reunion, following a mid-1980s hiatus and continuing to the present.
“There’s been a bunch of them,” he says. “A lot of people have come and gone. Four have gone to meet their maker.”
The current tour also features permanent member John McFee along with John Cowan, Ed Toth, Marc Quiñones, Mark Russo and Bill Payne, keyboardist and founding member of Little Feat.
“Bill’s been on just about every album we ever did,” Johnston says. “He’s more than just a keyboard player; he’s an element unto himself.”
Johnston himself took a couple of breaks from the band, once for health reasons and once to pursue other musical projects, but says he’s never tired of the Doobies’ oeuvre, both “the chestnuts and the deep cuts.”
“Maybe I have a little less enthusiasm (for certain songs), but if the crowd enjoys them, that makes it enjoyable for me,” he says. “There are certain songs we play every night because the people want to hear them. If we didn’t play them, they’d be let down.
“But even if you’ve played the same song hundreds of times, it’s a different song depending on the crowd reaction. It’s very gratifying when you played a song well and the crowd understood that.”
That communication between musician and listener is priceless, Johnston says — and so are the connections that audiences have made with the music over 50 years via hits like “Long Train Runnin’,” “Jesus Is Just All Right,” “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “Listen to the Music.”
The band has won four Grammy Awards and sold more than 48 million albums, including “Best of the Doobies,” with 12 million in sales sending it beyond gold and platinum to the rare “diamond record” status.
“People will come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much, you got me through Vietnam, or my marriage, or high school, or college,’ ” he says. “It’s pretty simple — I still enjoy playing live. It’s what I do, it’s what I’m good at. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .