It is true that I was a diehard Eric Burdon fan until about 1968, but after that, my attention switched to Steve Miller. He had a fairish cult following in the UK, small enough to make you feel you were in on a secret. (It is a nerdy truth that when not only Miller but his erstwhile co-guitarist and ex-schoolmate, Boz Scaggs, both popped up in the hit parade in the mid- to late 1970s, I was very fed up.)
Nerds don’t change. Well, I don’t. Here are some facts. Miller is now 67, and his band hasn’t released a studio album for 17 years (there was a live album with a DVD released five years ago). He hasn’t toured England (and only two dates this time), I don’t think, for 28 years – or perhaps he meant that 1982 was the last time he was in Manchester, where I saw him last Friday. His new arguably eighteenth album (Bingo!) consists of fourteen rhythm-and-blues covers, including the best version of Come On, Let The Good Times Roll since Hendrix worked it over in 1968. He tours in the USA (about fifty or so dates a year), and has done for years. So to get a chance to see him again was a treat.
I’ve seen him twice – in 1972, in London, when some of the equipment gave up the ghost (smoke came out of the organ), and in 1975, when he was the main support act to Pink Floyd at Knebworth (the first outing of Wish You Were Here). There was a good reason why he was the main support act: his first complete album, in 1967, had an extended instrumental with sound effects and voices off (‘The Beauty Of Time Is That It’s Snowing’), which anticipated anything Waters and Gilmour could think up by a good couple of years. The production was also immaculate, complex, subtle. And that was the great contradiction in Miller, as well as his appeal – part of him was straight-down-the-middle rhythm’n’blues, like ‘Mercury Blues’, a number he has been playing since 1966 and probably earlier (there is a very obscure film soundtrack called ‘Revolution’, which included three pre-first-album tracks from Miller, including ‘Mercury Blues’ – do I have it? Of course I do! Did I see the film? No: did anybody?). The other part of him was capable of dreamy, extended and just-this-side-of-psychedelic material. He has a high, sweet voice, clear and clean and fond of harmonies. In a sense, he was born with a fantastic advantage: his godfather was the late Les Paul, and his parents were Les Paul and Mary Ford’s best man and woman. T-Bone Walker was a friend of his father’s. He surely gets his interest in the sonic quality of his music from Les Paul (his father was also a recording engineer).
Miller has a curiously cheerful and familiar face. If you put him in a line-up with Jeff Bridges and the late Carl Wilson (the Beach Boys), you might well say they were related. He is also an excellent guitar player: but the oddest thing about him is that he has often been content to let other guitarists hang out with his band and take the solos. At Knebworth, he was one of four – but he stuck to rhythm, and left the solos to the much under-rated Les Dudek, who is still playing on the margins. But the band he brought to Manchester had only one guitarist: Miller himself. It was the kind of revelation a fan could only hope for. They played about twenty numbers, and in most cases, it was Miller in full flight. His extended version of ‘Fly Like An Eagle’ was a tour-de-force.
Miller still isn’t taking all the credit. Three or so years ago, he handed a spot in his band to a second singer, Sonny Charles, who sings as well as – and in much the same way as – one of Miller’s idols, Sam Cooke. One of the other great revivals on the new album is the Otis Redding/Carla Thomas hit, ‘Tramp’ – a duet for braggarts, really cleverly belted out.
The Apollo advertised a support act. I wasn’t the only one in the audience dreading it. But the curtain rose to reveal Miller, Charles and the more regular sidekicks, Joseph Wooten, Gordy Knudtson and Billy Peterson (keyboards, drums, bass). And off they set – about twenty songs, including ‘Mercury Blues’, and three from his second and third albums, before a raid on his eighth, tenth, eleventh (I was counting …) and four from the new one.
He looked great, sounded great. I guess that will be the last time I’ll see him. Somebody bring me a cheeseburger! (The throwaway line from his ironic song ‘Living In The USA’, 42 years old and still in great shape, and a lot less bombastic than Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’. I wasn’t the only one shouting it out, I am happy to say.) What a great night.