Doobie, doobie do – or don't

Jill Fisher

The Doobies at the DECC. Photos by Jill Fisher.

The Doobie Brothers came to Duluth as part of their extensive 50th Anniversary Tour. The concert at the Amsoil Arena in the DECC on Tuesday, June 20 was a must see for me as they were a favorite band of mine back in my early college days. The ticket prices were surprisingly affordable, so I was amazed the arena wasn’t sold out. However, it was pretty full, with a sea of white-haired folks, evidently of my own population cohort with memories that matched mine.  

The concert started promptly at 7:30 pm with the seven-member band coming on like gang busters with “Take Me In Your Arms” (Rock Me A Little While). It promised an evening of the rockin’ boogie The Doobies Brothers are known for. The band lineup on this evening consisted of  original member, Pat Simmons (electric and acoustic guitar, vocals), along with long-time members Michael McDonald (keyboards, mandolin, vocals), John McFee (electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, dobro, vocals), John Cowan (bass, vocals), Marc Russo (saxophone) and Ed Toth (drums). Marc Quiñones (drums, congas, backup vocals) joined in 2018. Tom Johnston, an original member of the band, was absent from the lineup this evening.

Simmons greeted the audience by saying it was good to be back in Duluth. (I don’t recall they played here when I lived here in the 90s, nor could I confirm they played during the 20 years I lived out east.) He commented that our community was a gem to be cherished amidst the crazy world we’re living in.  

Michael McDonald’s distinctive and soulful voice was instantly recognizable as the band launched into its second number, “Here To Love You” from its 1978 album Minute By Minute. At age 71 his vocalizations were remarkable, sounding as strong as ever, and the audience went wild with applause and appreciation. Likewise, Pat Simmons, who will turn 75 in October, was in good voice. The harmonies The Doobie Brothers are known for were right on.  

So the DBs were on a roll playing their greatest hits thereby ensuring complete audience satisfaction. One audience member yelled out “China Grove!” which the band delivered as its last number. Other greatest hits the band performed included “Running Down the Highway,” “You Belong To Me,” “It Keeps You Running,” “Minute By Minute,” “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me,” “What A Fool Believes,” “Long Train Runnin’,” etc.  

Two lesser-known songs, “South City Midnight Lady” and “Clear as the Driven Snow” from DB’s 1996 double album Rockin’ Down the Highway: The  Wildlife Concert were also performed. Simmons informed us that this latter number was about a “trip.” It was augmented with flashing white lights aimed at putting us into an altered state, along with Grateful Dead-like jamming.  

A large screen behind the band, as wide as the stage, had visuals projected onto it that corresponded to each song. For instance, five revolving lanterns provided the visual accompaniment to “Clear as the Driven Snow” while “Minute by Minute” had all manner of wheels and disks flying rapidly into the distance with a dizzying effect. Others were abstract compositions while one had Warhol-like multiple images of an early TV set; another was of a full moon above a blue granary building.

An ear-splitting sax solo by Marc Russo on “You Belong To Me” was actually quite thrilling, if deafening. His sax solos were featured on quite a few of the songs, perhaps too many, as the growing effect was to homogenize the sounds of the band’s repertoire. The lone cover was “I Heard It Through the Grapevine;” the DB’s rendition was righteous.   

The latest album put out by The Doobie Brothers, released in October 2021, is Liberté, from which they sang “Better Days.” During this song the faces of deceased DB band members were scrolled along the screen within M.C. Escher-like cubes. It was quite moving.  

For me, the highlight of the concert was when Simmons, McDonald and McFee stepped forward to the edge of the stage for an acoustic instrumental. It was out-of-this-world lovely. I didn’t catch the name of the tune—if it was even announced. The surprise was that McDonald abandoned his keyboards to play the mandolin. Simmons drew this to our attention. And it was clear from the grins on their faces when they finished that they were elated with what they had just played.  

The band did not take a break but kept up its high energy performance for about an hour and a half after which an encore of “Black Water” was played at about 9:20. There may have been others, but I had heard enough.  

My inquiries of attendees confirmed my observation that most were more than gratified with the concert. Several folks asked me what I thought and my ambivalent response may have been due to a distasteful interaction with the band’s security man. He had brusquely  marched the three of us with official photo passes from the front of the house (up close to the stage) to the sound and light platform at the back of the main floor area thus precluding us from getting the best possible shots. We were also sternly reminded (because we had to sign prior releases to this effect) that we could only take photos during the first three songs. Never mind that nearly everyone else in the audience was taking pictures and videos with their phones, all likely to be posted on Facebook or YouTube! Further, I was told by other security personnel not to dance in the eight-foot side aisles because it “had to be kept unobstructed”—though as time went on many others were standing and dancing in the aisles without being hassled.  Although I did enjoy hearing many of my favorite DB songs and seeing the band members live, it did get a bit boring by the end. Would I attend another Doobie Brothers concert? Probably not.  

Part of my less-than-positive response to this concert is likely due to the arena setting itself. Beyond the issues stated above, I have become accustomed to hearing live music in much more intimate settings and find them to be far and away superior to such a large venue.

Indeed, as I think back over the recent past, I can’t help but recall the performance of the Basement Tapes Band (Marc Gartman, the Mahon brothers, et al) on the Cosmic Lounge stage at Bent Paddle during this year’s Dylan Fest. For me, that was a much more exciting and satisfying musical event than the Doobie Brothers concert.  

Don’t get me wrong, the Doobies put on a professional, polished and well-produced show. And perhaps such comparisons aren’t justified. Afterall music is an ephemeral experience that taps into various emotions and memories. So though I might avoid some concerts at Amsoil Arena (would never miss Bob Dylan), I must admit I am happy to have seen The Doobie Brothers, despite some ambivalence.  

Upcoming: Another slate of outdoor music performances is now on my radar—four Courtside Concerts at Pier B have been announced for this summer; only three remain, the next one being by South of Superior at 7 pm on July 12. See you there!