They came to hear the hits, and they got them. But they also left with a lifelong lesson in the blues.
Blasting “Jungle Love,” “Take the Money and Run” and “Abracadabra” right out of the gate, the Steve Miller Band quickly reminded the Statesman Skyline Theater crowd that they were ubiquitous on FM radio from the early 1970s to the early ’80s. And Miller, the Dallas-raised guitarist who struck gold and platinum when he moved to California, hasn’t lost a step as a player or a singer, even at age 72.
A-LIST GALLERY: Photos from the night at Statesman Skyline Theater
He also still loves the blues, as was evident by the late add of “special guest James Cotton” to the bill for this concert. The Chicago harmonica legend was just one of two blues greats who joined in for a few midset songs, as it turned out. Austin guitar great Jimmie Vaughan, who was part of Miller’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction band earlier this year, also joined in.
“They say the blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll,” Miller declared as Cotton and Vaughan came aboard a few songs into the show. “We’re going to show you how that happened.”
They did just that, digging deep into classics such as “44 Blues” and “Cross Road Blues” (the latter with Vaughan singing lead). If Cotton, who was helped onstage with a cane and performed sitting down, is showing his 81 years, his harp tone was no less distinctive as he turned the open-air sunset scene into a beyond-midnight juke joint.
“People in most towns would called that an indulgence, but I know y’all don’t think that’s an indulgence,” Miller said as Vaughan and Cotton departed after about a half-dozen tunes. Indeed, this was an only-in-Austin moment, grown from a seed perhaps planted last year when Miller was part of an Antone’s 40th-anniversary celebration for KGSR’s “Blues on the Green” in Zilker Park.
Miller and his three-piece backing band — Austin guitarist Jacob Petersen, Minnesota drummer Gordy Knudtson and keyboardist Joseph Wooten (who did double duty, playing the bass notes on a separate board) — took it the rest of the way. Miller reached way back to 1968 for his first minor hit, “Living in the U.S.A.,” and forward to 1986 for “I Want to Make the World Turn Around,” which struck a social chord in this political season from its opening line: “I don’t want to live in a world of darkness/ I want to live in a world of light.”
Miller spoke briefly of his recent Rock Hall induction and his subsequent criticisms of the institution, saying that he hopes to use his status to help fight for such causes as intellectual property rights for songwriters. The show’s final half-hour brought the major smashes that got him into the Hall, from “The Joker” to “Rock’n Me” to “Fly Like an Eagle” to “Take the Money and Run.”
He also teased with a solo acoustic snippet of “Jet Airliner” near the end of the main set, before returning to it with the full band in the encore. Bringing Cotton and Vaughan out for a final bow at the end was a nice gesture, though it would’ve been even better to hear Vaughan on “Jet Airliner.” As much as Vaughan is a master blues hound, playing guitar on a big rock hit is certainly a role he’s filled before, in his Fabulous Thunderbirds days.
Opening act Big Head Todd & the Monsters took the stage a few minutes before the scheduled start time of 7 p.m. and played for nearly an hour to early arrivals. The Colorado group has been coming to Austin since showcasing at the second South by Southwest in 1988, and they clearly have some longtime fans here, many of whom sang along to their 1990s hits “Bittersweet” and “Broken Hearted Savior.”