Steve Miller, Royal Albert Hall, London
The Joker's still making them smile
Monday 11 October 2010
Back in the UK for the first time in a quarter of a century, there's no need for Steve Miller to stand on ceremony.
He knows exactly what his audience wants, so as soon as the curtain (literally) drops, he and his band dive into the powerglide pop-rock of "Jet Airliner", instantly reaching cruising speed from a standing take-off, before slipping smoothly into the genial "Take the Money and Run". It's like a masterclass in propelling a concert to maximum momentum with the minimum of fuss, and the abundant good vibes wash out in waves around the Albert Hall.
There's none of the stand-offishness or overweening self-regard that sometimes attends shows by notable blues guitarists of Miller's calibre. Indeed, it's often forgotten that his group started life as the Steve Miller Blues Band, before the "Blues" evaporated in San Francisco's psychedelic sunshine to leave that most attractive of potential Labour leaders, Steve Miller Band. But while most of his peers from the Summer of Love fell quickly by the wayside, Miller managed to extend his career just at the moment when the dream seemed to be over, modernising his original psychedelic blues into a more broadly appealing style with unexpected pop potential. It's this mid-Seventies transformation – paralleling that took him from the self-proclaimed Gangster of Love and Space Cowboy to the midnight-toker character of The Joker – on which his current show is built.
Only a few remnants of that earlier period remain, notably "Space Cowboy" itself – which Miller admits took some remembering once they had decided to name the tour after it – and the anthemic "Living in the USA", with a telling lyric change from "living in a plastic land" to "living in a fantastic land" reflecting his dedication of it to American and British servicemen fighting overseas. Otherwise, the set is fairly equally split between hits like the infectious "Rock N' Me" and "Abracadabra" and the polished R&B covers of his new album, Bingo!, Miller switching guitars frequently as the mood shifts from blues to rock to pop.
The show's good-natured vibe is aided by Miller's backing vocalist Sonny Charles, who at first appears to be a sort of good-time cheerleader, clapping along, nodding approval enthusiastically as Steve peels off another dazzling lick, and exhorting the crowd to get involved with his engaging wobble-legged dance skills. But when he takes lead vocals on sterling covers of Bobby Bland's "Further On Up the Road" and Jesse Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo", it turns out that Sonny can sing the socks off this vintage material, too: later on, one of the show's highlights comes when the two men take the Otis and Carla roles for an irresistibly funky "Tramp".
Not that Miller himself is any slouch vocally. During an acoustic segment featuring songs dedicated to late friends and band members, he essays a moving a cappella version of "Nature Boy" which, he reveals, the late Les Paul ("my godfather") had specifically requested Steve should sing at his funeral. It's another show-stopping moment en route to the expected, and duly delivered, encore of "Fly Like an Eagle", with Miller teasing delicate, echoing runs from his guitar effects board, before "The Joker" sends us on our way, brimful with bonhomie.
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