Before the Steve Miller Band, there was the Steve Miller Blues Band. Before the Joker, before the Space Cowboy, before Maurice, there was Steve – guitarist extraordinaire, young, beautiful, and insanely talented, with an intense affinity for and knowledge of American Blues and Roots music. This Steve, in conjunction with Jazz at Lincoln Center, has been responsible for shining a bright light on the important historical and artistic roles that Blues guitar has played in American history - and, stemming from that, the role that Blues guitar has played in Steve Miller’s artistic journey. Some musicians seem to move further and further away from their creative roots and influences as they become more and more grounded in their lasting legacy, a legacy that propels itself into the future. But Steve is smarter than them; he always was. Consider for a moment the immense commercial and creative success that he achieved via his Fly Like an Eagle (1976) and Book of Dreams (1977) albums. Only a highly tuned mind with a clear and conscious vision, and the technical prowess to see it through to completion, could have manifested such recognizable greatness. A mind like this then, would logically conclude that the high value placed upon its original artistic influences, a high value determined amidst the earnest desires and ardors of youth, would only have increased since. And increases deserve revisits.
Perhaps the most compelling video footage of Steve Miller that exists is a short documentary film made for German television in 1970. Amidst the film’s interview clips, Steve stresses the fact that he is “an entertainer.” This is how he defines himself, and this self-belief continuously results in the most enjoyable and unifying concert experiences for audiences. America in 1970 was politically and societally all over the place, and its many musicians knew it, most of whom responded to the current state of affairs through their work. Steve insisted on transcending these complicated realities through his work – not denying their existence but instead refusing to submit to their potential defeatism. His music exuded the opposites offailure and hopelessness and fear.
In 2016, Miller’s return-to-roots musical initiative exuded these same opposites. Along with fellow guitar-wizard Jimmy Vaughan and a slue of top-notch jazz players, Steve issued forth a tribute to T-Bone Walker that paid a well-informed homage to his legacy, an which bringing it forward into the current century. Miller’s guitar playing and overall musical generosity was as vibrant and heart-beating as it possibly could have been. He opened the first show on December 9th with an acoustic version of his mega-hit “The Joker,” to which the audience immediately responded with a burst of applause. Steve laughed lightly at this, amused at the crowd’s reaction to such a provisional song, a song to welcome attendees, a gift from around which he could build his true show. A recognizable and mellow rainbow of a tune to take us real blue, real fast.
Song upon song upon song followed. Guitars reigned. Miller and Jimmie Vaughan injected Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” with new life and instantaneous emotion, refusing to treat the familiar tune (originally recorded in the 1930s) as a museum piece. “Wichita Falls Blues,” one of the first tunes T-Bone ever recorded, featured great work by the band’s horn section. Jazz vocalist Brianna Thomas was featured throughout the evening and shone brightly on this particularly number. “Blues were popular music,” Steve spoke out toward the audience between songs. “They were trying to make hit records just like “The Joker.” A deep artist is one who is informed of those who came before him, and this knowledge allows him to connect his own work to the continuous and chronological stream of art-time. He sees the commonality of purpose.
Thomas took lead vocals on “He’s Gonna Ruin Me,” joined by Steve in the song’s refrains; the track had been originally recorded on December 9th, Steve informed us, the same date as this particular JALC performance. “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong,” recorded by T-Bone Walker in 1962, featured exquisite and impressive guitar work by Jimmie Vaughan. Some of the concert’s best moments were those of dueling guitars; Steve and Jimmie are some of the best guitarists around, and when they played at each other, trading the songs’ melodies back and forth between them, the music jumped out even more intensely at the audience. A remarkable number entitled “Guitar Boogie” was “a summation of all T-Bone’s ideas,” Miller told us; Steve had “waited all day to hear it,” he announced. His enthusiasm for the project – a bit of an outlier for Miller when considering that he still tours for large amounts of time with his hits-abounding Steve Miller Band – was palpable. The evening’s final song was “Everyday I Have the Blues.” “This is where it all ends up, baby,” said Steve.
Before the December 9th performance of Steve Miller and Jimmie Vaughan’s T-Bone Walker show at JALC, Steve – and T-Bone Walker’s daughter Anita – gave a brief (and free-of-charge) lecture to ticketholders. Miller explained how he had first come to learn about T-Bone’s music, how he had met T-Bone himself, how he had been inspired by him, musically, personally. It was refreshing to hear Steve reflect so authentically upon his influences, to hear him divert the attention of the talk away from his SMB story and toward The Blues itself. Toward the legacy of the genre, the importance of it, the need for its flame to be kept burning, to be brought to life and made new again in the twenty-first century. Because the Blues do not belong to a particular decade or era – they are an eternal, chronic condition of human existence itself. Any musician that plays the genre well taps into this awareness, as Steve does. It’s interesting then, to consider how laid-back, how positive, how fun-loving, how on-the-ball his persona is – and was, as evident in that fantastic 1970 German television doc. He’s bright sunshine, he’s grounded cool, he’s all talent. Pure, pure talent.