The Doobie Brothers, who counted the Hell’s Angels among their biggest fans in their early days, have long been drawing more mainstream devotees from around the world.
“We still get some bikers who show up (for concerts), but they’re not Hell’s Angels. They’re more like motorcycle enthusiasts,” said Doobie Brothers vocalist and founder Tom Johnston.
Regular rock fans, he added, have always been the core followers of the four-time Grammy-winning group that has sold 48 million albums around the globe.
The group’s listeners can chart their youth to songs like China Grove, What a Fool Believes and Takin’ It To the Streets.
Whether audiences consist of people who loved the band’s tunes as teenagers, or their children or grandchildren, it’s live performances that keep the Doobie Brothers’ engine stoked.
“Basically, we started out playing live, and though we’ve done a lot of albums, we never were a studio hothouse kind of group,” said Johnston, who performs with his legendary band on Tuesday at Red Deer’s Centrium.
“We like interacting with the audience. That’s our biggest payoff.”
It also helps, after 45 years of playing, that the songs people want to hear are still great fun to perform. “You could sing a song a thousand times and it could be a different experience because the audiences are different,” said Johnston.
Take Me In Your Arms, Jesus is Alright, Nobody and Southern City Midnight Lady are some of the durable Doobie Brothers tunes that could gain a new life when the band releases its new album Southbound on Nov. 4.
The CD that reworks the group’s best-of catalogue will feature contributions from many of today’s most acclaimed country artists: Brad Paisley sings on Rockin’ Down the Highway, Blake Shelton croons on Listen to the Music, Toby Keith contributes vocals on Long Train Runnin’, and Vince Gill plays guitar on You Belong to Me.
Other guests include Sara Evans (What a Fool Believes), Love and Theft (Takin’ It To the Streets), and the Zac Brown Band (Black Water). The new album also brings back former Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald.
Each “re-do” mixes some of the band members’ contributions with those of studio musicians and guest artists. “The studio guys just nailed it. It was two takes and the song is done,” said Johnston, who calls it an interesting experience that “came out a lot better than I expected — not that I didn’t expect it to be good, but it came out really good.”
Some of the participants put a unique spin on tunes that could appeal to a whole new generation. “In some cases, there were more strings or mandolin. … Any number of things (could have turned out) different when different players are doing each song.”
The California band, formed in 1969, attained its greatest successes in the 1970s by blending country, rock blues and jazz influences. Johnston said he never really thought of the Doobie Brothers as a pioneer of crossover acts, even though the band’s music often straddled country and rock stations.
It was a natural mix, since the band’s steel guitarist/dobro player John McFee came from the country side of the industry. Patrick Simmons was more influenced by roots music of the Doc Watson type, and Johnston’s tastes were shaped by the blues, R&B and rock.
The melding of these genres “is what made us the Doobie Brothers,” he added.
The band will perform at the Centrium with core members Johnston, Simmons and McFee, as well as newer musicians: bassist John Cowan, keyboardist Guy Allison, saxophone player Marc Russo, and drummer/percussionists Ed Toth and Tony Pia.
Having been inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004, the group is still going strong, despite many membership changes over the years. Changes have included the coming and going of vocalist MacDonald, and the deaths of percussionists Keith Knudsen, Michael Hossack and Bobby LaKind, as well as bassist Dave Shogren, and saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus.
Although the Doobie Brothers still play more than 90 shows around the world annually, Johnston doubts the band would be as successful if starting out today.
With the old album format giving way to downloaded music, rock getting largely displaced by pop and electronica, and record companies signing fewer bands and investing less in artist development, he said, “It’s a different place out there. The music industry’s changed.”
In Johnston’s opinion, it’s unlikely many of today’s bands will have the longevity of The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac — or the Doobie Brothers, for that matter. Perhaps the pendulum will eventually swing back, he added. “I hope it does, for music’s sake.”
In the meantime, band members are gratified whenever a fan tells them via Facebook that a certain song means a lot. “It’s always fulfilling and gratifying to touch somebody through your music,” said Johnston.
Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. Centrium show, including opening artist Lara Johnston, who is a singer/songwriter (and Tom’s daughter), are $57 or $77 from Ticketmaster.