Sunday, November 18, 2018
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Review: Toto blesses the rains (and the fans) in Clearwater with sharp set at Ruth Eckerd Hall

The Africa T-shirt was a hot seller.

A $35 wormhole straight to 1982, it wasn't hard to spot a fan wearing a fresh one at Toto's nearly sold-out concert Wednesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. The name Toto was barely visible across the continent-shaped art, which might be appropriate considering how that one oddball single has somehow commandeered the band's entire legacy.

Thirty-six years after its release, Africa has once again risen like Kilimanjaro above the Serengeti, thanks to a cover by Weezer that this summer reached No. 1 on the alt-rock chart. That crossover resurgence stretched to Ruth Eckerd Hall, where amidst the mostly older crowd there were quite a few couples in their 30s, maybe even late 20s.

RELATED: Toto's Steve Lukather talks 'Africa,' Weezer, being a punch line and more

But if anyone came just to hear Africa and buy a lousy T-shirt, boy, what a shock they got. Dressed like they won the silent raffle at rock 'n' roll fantasy camp, all silks, scarves and skintight black tees, Toto sliced through 40 years of rock-fusion wizardry, showing some 2,000 fans why their unlikely renaissance is owed to more than just one song.

The absence of singer-keyboardist David Paich, home ill, didn't stop guitarist Steve Lukather, singer Joseph Williams and keyboardist Steve Porcaro from jumping into it headfirst on the fiery Alone, Hold the Line and Lovers In the Night.

Williams – the son of legendary composer John Williams, if you didn't know – delivered powerhouse vocals on Make Believe and Hold the Line. Porcaro, with his Warholian haircut and spectacles, poured absolute ecstasy into his synthesizers on Rosanna, a hit where the band just kept playing, on and on, keeping fans on their feet just a few minutes longer.

Guitarist Steve Lukather and Toto perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Oct. 24, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

And oh, how one lives for those runaway Lukather solos, whether on crowd-rousting hits like Hold the Line or razorlike rockers like English Eyes. The world never asked for another cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, but Lukather's riffs were so fierce the crowd had to give him a standing O. Had his fingertips matched his Edward Scissorhands 'do, that axe would've been toothpicks in seconds.

"LUUUUUUUKE!" the crowd bellowed.

"Ah, I love that," Lukather chuckled.

Toto's many critics will be happy to know that throughout the set, there was much savory cheese to be mongered. Let the debate over whether Toto is officially yacht rock die with Spanish Sea, a cluster of crystalline synth chimes floating along like a castaway catamaran. Or Lea, a bouquet of salty shakers and pina colada twinkles that let Porcaro sweep us into the horizon.

Did Warren Ham throw down a funktacular flute solo on Georgy Porgy? You bet your Gloria Vanderbilts he did. Did Williams straddle a backturned chair like a cool substitute teacher for the soapy-smooth Human Nature? Buddy, if you even have to ask, you came to the wrong fondue key party.

Seriously, though, all the roasting in the world can't mask the fact that every one of the cats in Toto can still flat-out cook. It's why they worked nonstop as A-list session musicians back in the day, and why they're still packing venues more than 40 years later.

The insurgent jazz-fusion epic Jake to the Bone saw every player juking and deking all over the meter, churning out lean, sinewy solos. Harder tracks like the cowbell-flogging Lion and thrilling Girl Goodbye were honest-to-goodness fist-pumpers. They even spliced in an uplifting instrumental cut from Dune, the 1984 sci-fi epic for which they set the score.

Toto performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Oct. 24, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

Eventually maybe Toto's ironic appeal will wear thin. It might already be happening, as a bunch of fans left to beat traffic during their closing, retaliatory cover of Weezer's Hash Pipe. Hard to blame them – the song was rockin', but if you've spent the last 40 years stanning Toto, it must've been a weird way to watch them end a set.

But even Africa, that overplayed earworm from Reagan's first term, can still be more than a memeable moment.

"All right Clearwater, are you ready for it?" Lukather said. "Get your asses up, let's do this. I want to hear you singing."

Of course they stood for Africa and of course they sang along, and of course Toto milked it for all the world, layering five-part harmonies atop all-galaxy percussionist Lenny Castro's bed of gongs and bongos. Eventually the music dipped and Williams had the crowd sing the song's synth riff (baaah, bap-bap, ba-dap, bap-baaah…) as the band jammed that thing to the end. Even Ruth Eckerd's notoriously stern phone police showed no interest in stopping fans from filming clips, documenting their own personal moment of virality.

Ironic tees aside, anyone who started out too cool for Toto had to leave admiring every last note they left on stage. There's no shame in peeling off that Africa T-shirt, throwing your mentions to the wind and letting the rains bless your hipster butt, too. Out here in Totoland, the water feels just fine.

— Jay Cridlin

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