He hasn't ever won a Grammy or been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but to millions of fans of all ages Steve Miller remains a revered icon of rock. The leader of one of the most prominent, critically acclaimed bands to arise out of San Francisco's psychedelic music scene, Miller eventually achieved phenomenal commercial success with a series of hit singles and albums beginning with "The Joker." One of classic rock's most popular artists, Miller combined the lyrical finesse of a literature major with deep-rooted musical smarts.
At 65, he's still ably rocking the world with a hits-packed show, as his recent DVD/CD release, "Live in Chicago," attests. Age has not diminished his smooth vocals or guitar prowess. And he's surrounded by a superb band including harmonica player Norton Buffalo, and new member Sonny Charles, the former lead singer of the soul band the Checkmates.
Question: I hear you've gone back to your roots and been recording a new blues and R&B album?
At 65 Steve Miller sounds less like The Joker than a musical legend with both feet on the ground
Photo courtesy of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
Answer: I've been working on it for a year. It's got a lot of great material. I wanted to go into the studio and have some fun. We're doing some Jimmy Vaughan tunes, 'Hey Yeah' and 'Sweet Soul Vibe,' Bo Diddley's 'Pretty Thing,' Muddy Waters' 'Can't Be Satisfied,' Jimmy Reed's 'You got me Dizzy,' Otis Rush's 'All Your Love,' Junior Wells' 'Hoodoo Man Blues' and 'Rock Me Baby' and 'Sweet Home Chicago.' It's not a blues covers album, it's more like a pop album with lots of vocal harmonies and a lot of guitar playing.
We wanted it to sound really great so we went to Skywalker Ranch and got Andy Johns to do the engineering, and he's famous for all his Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin tracks. It's like a guitar player's dream, it sounds so good. And we have a new member in the band, Sonny Charles from the Checkmates. It's like Otis Redding joined the band.
I just went to Vegas to see Elton John and we had dinner, and I played him the new album and he was just knocked out. That was a good sign. He liked all the vocal harmonies.
* The Steve Miller Band performs on Saturday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's A&B Amphitheater. Jesse Colin Young opens at 7 p.m. Tickets are $55, $65 and $85, with a limited number of $125 premium seating tickets available. Applicable fees are added to prices of tickets, available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
Q: Having an 'Otis Redding' in the band must really enhance your sound.
A: It adds an authenticity to everything we're doing. We tour every year, about 50 cities, and last November when we were wrapping up the autumn tour, I walked off stage thinking that's the best we've ever sounded. For me, this is the best band and best sound we've ever had. Everyone is invigorated. He's a phenomenal singer and he sings with us on all the greatest hits. It's kind of a miracle at this stage of a career to have somebody of that quality join the band.
Q: In an old Rolling Stone interview you suggested musicians don't really peak until they're about 60. Does it feel like that for you?
A: It does. I practice and study and keep working on what I'm doing. I'm smarter, I have more experience. This is pretty much prime time for me. I turned 65 last October and I feel great and I love what I'm doing. Every concert for me is great fun. I really like the stuff I'm working on now. Whether it's going to be popular like the stuff I did 30 years ago, probably not, the record business being what it is.
Q: There's a great YouTube video of you solo playing an acoustic version of "The Joker." An acoustic collection of your hits would probably sell well.
A: We've been recording that stuff too. It's in the works. There are a lot of people who would like to be part of it. A lot of country artists grew up listening to my music like Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith. They're all fans. They come to the gigs and I drag them on stage and make them sing on 'Rock 'n Me' or 'The Joker.' So we'll bring some of those guys in. And I've been doing some stuff with Carol King lately, working on some tunes.
Last year we did some sessions with the band and started with 'Children of the Future' and went through all the albums, doing fun songs like 'Motherless Children,' 'Quicksilver Girl' and 'Baby's Calling Me Home.'
It sounds really good, but the question is how are we going to sell records now. You think you could walk into Capitol Records and hey, this is a good idea, but they're just about out of business. They sold the tower for condos. EMI was just bought by a company that specializes in waste management, hotels and gas stations. Basically I'm finding the people interested in manufacturing and putting out records are not even music people, like somebody at Wal-Mart or Best Buy. They just want to see the Steve Miller logo, they don't care what's in the record. So I've got this great new record, how can I put it out? I'd like to just put it on my Web site, come and download it.
Q: Are you still finding generation after generation gravitating to your music?
A: It's the songs, they're fun to sing and they sound good. It's pretty hard not to sing the chorus of 'The Joker.' In the '90s it was shocking, 85 percent were between the ages of 10 and 20. Our shows are kind of more than a headbanger's ball. It's a rock show and they learn about blues and jazz. In the last five years, the audience is more mature; it goes from about 1968 to now.
Q: Early on in your career moving to Chicago, it must have been amazing to suddenly find yourself jamming with some of the greats of blues.
A: It's funny, I think back to that time and how cocky I was, because T-Bone Walker taught me how to play guitar when I was 9-years-old, and when I got to Chicago, Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, I went, you guys are phony, you've just been learning all this stuff off records and I've been learning from T-Bone Walker. I want Muddy Waters' gig. The original Butterfield Band was just amazing. I saw them and thought I want some of this. Seeing Butterfield, the light bulb went off: maybe I could get a record contract, too. When I was about 40 years old, I went, holy cow, look who I was hanging out with. At the time I didn't have it in perspective. I was one of handful of people in that scene. I saw Muddy Waters play about 150 times in a room the size of my living room, and James Cotton would stay at my house.
Q: Moving to San Francisco you soon became prominent in the underground music scene and released some superb early albums, landmark recordings characterized by exemplary musicianship.
A: When I got out to San Francisco, it was more a social phenomenon. It took me a while to figure it out. The Grateful Dead could hardly tune their instruments and they were all stoned on acid, and they took 10 minutes between songs. I showed up with a tight little band. It was a good spot for us. The Dead and Jefferson Airplane were all folkies when they started. 'Chuck Berry's coming to town, oh my God, who's going to back him? Let's call Steve.' When we went to London in '67 to record 'Children of the Future' we were kind of ahead of the curve with blues.
Q: On your third album, 'Brave New World,' a certain Paul Ramon plays on 'My Dark Hour.' How did you hook up with Paul McCartney?
A: I was scheduled to go to England to mix 'Brave New World' with (engineer) Glenn Johns and he was working with the Beatles at the time. I arrived and Glenn said, 'Let's go to George's house. I met George and he made me feel so good. He said he loved what I was doing. Are you kidding? So I went to a session, it was 'Get Back.' The next day they were going to cut some tracks and Ringo and John didn't show up. So we jammed for a bit, and then George took off and Paul and I really hit it off. He got on drums and I got on guitar and Glenn said, 'Let's record it.' I had this little tune and then Paul played bass, and Paul and I sang background. I went back to the States thinking I just did a song with one of the Beatles. It started a friendship and we've done a lot of stuff since then.
Q: You later played on McCartney's "Flaming Pie" album.
A: I got a call and he wondered if I would sing on his record. He and Linda came to over to my studio and we did a bunch of stuff and then I did some guitar work with Paul at his place.
Q: In the evolution of your career, "The Joker" heralded a major shift. You went from playing theaters to stadiums.
A: We were really struggling for 7 years trying to get somewhere. We were kings of the underground and bigger in England than the States, but we couldn't get on television, and AM radio wouldn't touch us. I was pretty much at the end of the line. I remember finishing the album and some kid at the record company said, 'I think "The Joker" is really a hit.' I didn't have any idea and I was mad at the company because they weren't giving me any support. I just said, please have the record in stores in the cities I'm playing in.
When I got done with the tour, it was number one and there was a check in the mailbox and I was no longer poor. So I called up my agent and said I'm not going to tour next year, I'm going to work on a new album. And I ended up working for 18 months and made 'Fly Like an Eagle' and 'Book Of Dreams.' And in that time we became kings of AM radio and everything changed. But it was a very long, slow, hard slog.
Q: 'Fly Like an Eagle' is one of your most memorable, loved songs. It features a wonderful juxtaposition of decrying unjust social conditions and offering an inspiring affirmation.
A: When I was in college I was a Freedom Rider. I got on the bus and headed to Selma, Alabama. I was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and I went to a very radical university where there was a lot of social awareness. That always stuck with me. I wanted my music to mean something more than just pop music. That song was developed over a long period of time, years of touring. It was a big jam tune where you dimmed the lights, turned on the mirror ball and played for 30 minutes. I'm very pleased with that song, it was a pinnacle of music and political thought and social conscience. A really good hit has a lot of levels in it. That one has layers.
Hapa returns to the MACC on Friday for a show being billed as "Hapa and Friends." Among the friends appearing are Eric Gilliom and Ernie Cruz Jr.
"It's kind of an open door thing," says Hapa's Barry Flanagan. "We've put out feelers to all our friends. I loved what Lisa Loeb did at her last show with people entering and exiting. I stopped by on the way to the airport for a song."
Also joining the acclaimed duo on stage, chanter Charles Ka'upu and hula dancer Malia Peterson.
"There will be a couple of new songs," Barry continues. "It's really about lifting the spirits; positivity is so important right now."
Hapa's most recent CD, "It's a Slack Key World," released in late 2006, was built around a collaboration with friends. It featured a handful of Hapa gems along with tracks by Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers, Ernie Cruz Jr., Shawn Ishimoto, Imua Garza of the Opihi Pickers and Kalapana's Gaylord Holomalia.
With Nathan Aweau on board, the revitalized duo last triumphed at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 2006, winning album of the year and contemporary Hawaiian album of the year for their brilliant pan-Pacific recording "Maui."
They're now contemplating a follow-up. "We're in the think tank with what we're going to do to follow up the 'Maui' record," says Barry. "We're trying to work out songs and arrangements and the feel of the record. I think it's going to lean more towards the 'In the Name of Love' CD, more pop rockish. I want to do as much stuff as possible to lift people up. I want to do a well-produced album that kicks it out a little."
* Hapa performs in the MACC's Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $12, $28 and $37 plus applicable fees, and half-price for kids 12 and younger.
Two big benefit shows this weekend are attracting the cream of island talent. The "Time for Change" benefit sponsored by the Friends of Women Helping Women West Maui fields a great array of entertainers beginning at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Lahaina Civic Center Amphitheater.
Opening with Gail Swanson, the concert features Gene and Shea Argel, Ray Gooliak, Kelly Covington, Dr. Nat & Willie Boughton, Willie K & Avi Ronen, Micah Wolf and Bruddah Ernest Pua'a.
* Tickets for "Time for Change" helping victims of domestic violence are only $l0 for adults, and $5 for seniors and keiki under 12.
Last year's BarryFest was a major highlight and this year's "Music in the Park" event promises the same on Sunday at the Keopuolani Park Amphitheater from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mana'o Radio celebrates its seventh anniversary and the memory of co-founder Barry Shannon with BarryFest '09. Among the musicians participating, the Willie K Band, the Vince Esquire Band, the Mana'o Radio Orchestra and Friends including special guests Rick Vito of the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, Marty Dread and Eric Gilliom, the Haiku Hillbillys, the Bob Jones Band featuring guitarist Nils Rosenblad, Dr. Nat and Rio Ritmo, Gina Martinelli Band, Steve Grimes and Mojo Gumbo, the Jazz Caf Regulators, the BrownChicken Brown- Cow String Band, Eddie Tanaka and Friends, the Hula Honeys, and the Sound Wave surf band. Plus of course emcee Tita.
It's hard to imagine our island without Mana'o Radio's eclectic programming. This nonprofit, ad-free, non-formatted station has kept the airwaves alive with all genres and styles of music.
* Tickets for BarryFest '09 are $25 for adults, and $15 for keiki under 12 and kupuna over 65. Children under 6 are free. Discounted pre-sale tickets are available for $20 for adults. The Keopuolani Park Amphitheater is located across from War Memorial Stadium.