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Review: Steve Miller Band plows through Hall of Fame hits at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

Steve Miller Band performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on March 2, 2016.

Jay Cridlin

Steve Miller Band performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on March 2, 2016.



Why is the Steve Miller Band going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

As Miller approaches induction next month, it’s a question worth asking. For 22 years, the voters passed him over, refused even to name him a finalist. What changed this year? Why, 50 years after forming the band that bears his name, is Miller finally receiving rock and roll’s highest honor?

His near-sold-out concert Wednesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater offered a few clues. At 72, he remains a vastly underrated guitarist and knowledgeable, gracious rock and blues historian, respectful of those who respect the craft as much as him.

But if you really want to know why Miller’s about to become Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, start with this: The man just has hits for days.

Ambling out looking like an attorney at happy hour – dark suit, Ray-Bans, tousled silver mane – Miller opened with three biggies in a row: Jungle Love, Take the Money and Run and Abracadabra, whose chintzy synthesizers were no match for Miller’s zipping, zooping solo at the end.

Miller is an understated stage presence, but his guitar, swathed in effects, shone brightly on his biggest singles – the springy jackknife intros to Jet Airliner and Rock’n Me, for example, or the chug-a-lugging Midwestern pulse of Sugar Babe. And with the band backed by a curtain of twinkling lights, Miller led a looping, circuitous jam-out on Fly Like an Eagle, a show-stopping, time-stopping performance that no doubt took many in the crowd back to their hazy planetarium days.

But there's more to Miller than those dipped-in-gold hits. He’s no jam-bander, but Fly Like an Eagle showed he could be, as did the noodly organs and triple-jointed bass of Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma. If Phish have never covered that one, it’s an oversight.

Ever the picker and grinner, he ditched the electric for an acoustic on a few rusty numbers, including the twangy, harmonica-fueled Lovin’ Cup; Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Gangster of Love; and the gleefully uplifting Dance Dance Dance, the best John Denver song John Denver never recorded. He even teased a darker, dustier version of Jet Airliner.

Miller surprised the crowd by bringing out former bandmate and shaggy rock lifer Les Dudek (“He’s got a guitar made of swamp-ass,” Miller said) to trade licks on K.C. Douglas’s Mercury Blues and Little Walter’s Blues With a Feeling. The former was smoky, swampy and delicious, like a barbecued rib set to music; the latter a sultry spin on traditional blues, with Miller and Dudek’s guitars intertwined and dancing like old partners.

Between songs, Miller talked about the blues, and about learning his first chords from none other than family friend Les Paul. He also told the story of forming his first band with childhood pal Boz Scaggs at age 12. They charged $125 a gig, playing covers at frat houses across the South and Midwest.

“I had the band booked for the whole year in the first three weeks,” he said. “I’ve been working every Friday and Saturday night since.”

Miller didn’t bring up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but midway through the set, he offered a preview of what he might say at the podium.

“I recorded this song in 1973, when I was on my last wing and a prayer with my record company,” he said, introducing The Joker. “I’d made six records for them, but this was No. 7. The end of the line.”

He set out on a 60-city tour – “I think I came to Florida” – and by the end, The Joker was a hit coast to coast. “With all of our thanks to all of you who made this happen,” he dedicated the song to the fans who’ve stood by him ever since.

“The Joker thanks you,” he said.

Against all odds, The Joker, with its goofy lyrics and smirking whaa-wheew lick, somehow sounded bright and soulful and clear-eyed and genuine. The crowd stood and roared their approval as Miller, a month shy of his Hall of Fame moment, took a valedictory toke on their love.

-- Jay Cridlin

[Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2016 12:14am]


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