Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Everything seems to go silent as Bob Seger, at this point behind the piano, utters that last line of the last verse of "Turn the Page"-- You smoke the day's last cigarette / Rememberin' what she said. It's a heartbreaker, and it's one of the night's many reminders of one reason that Bob Seger has long had a very singular connection with a widespread and diverse heartland fanbase. Without an ounce of pretense, his songs strike deep, unforgettable chords.
Several other things are notable about this performance, 18 songs into Thursday night's 25-song set. First, as the Detroit rocker points out before launching into it, this song is 40 years old, written in 1971 in Oklahoma (presumably on the road), and Seger gives longtime saxophonist Alto Reed credit upfront for the searching horn part that makes it work. It's also a song by a 26-year-old rocker already sounding road-weary, which no doubt accounts for Seger's long absences from touring after his huge successes of the '70s and '80s.
So perhaps it is only appropriate that when the bespectacled, silver-headed and casually dressed Seger first addresses the mic for the opening double shot of "Roll Me Away" and Otis Clay's "Trying to Live My Life Without You," he looks more like an aging writer than a rock-and-roll star. Seger's lyrics matter, whether contemplating "autumn closing in" or the wonderful urgency of "the fire down below." And it makes sense that he tips his hat to another great songwriter, Tom Waits, with his new cover of "Downtown Train."
While all of Seger's hugely popular songs -- and let there be no doubt, the night delivers a widely accessible greatest-hits set -- have a light touch that makes them great party records, what's also evident is just how the maturity of these songs serves them well 30 and 40 years down the line. Sure, "Down on Main Street" and "Night Moves" obviously only grow more haunting and resonant with age, but the same can be said for virtually everything here -- the "yep, got fooled again" chuckles of "Sunspot Baby," the tender celebration of "Beautiful Loser," and the arms-wide-open "Rock and Roll Never Forgets." These are songs that capture lived experience with just the right detail, and the sing-along crowd chimes in like they mean it (because they do).
Of course, the words wouldn't matter without the music, and Seger makes sure that the show rocks hard from beginning to end. At 66 (in fact, the show falls on the eve of his and longtime backup singer Shaun Murphy's birthdays), he sounds incredibly good. That big old sledgehammer of a voice - -that he finds ways to yield with scalpel-like precision and, always, the restraint and delicacy of soul -- has never sounded better. And, as the show goes on, he only seems younger and stronger, working his way from playing guitar on a stool to the piano to, most often, simply dancing at the mic. By the quick break 14 songs deep, when he returns to the stage dressed in a fresh, black sleeveless shirt, it's hard to imagine the young Seger having much edge on this man's energy. That transformation as the show goes on adds a poignancy that wouldn't have been possible in that young man's set anyhow.
Every bit as impressive is the band that surrounds him, a core few who date back to the Seger Sound System of the late '60s. Guitarist Mark Chatfield is always ready to stoke the coals with a fiery solo, and sax player (multi-instrumentalist) Reed somehow manages to look and move like he's been carefully preserved in some kind of cryogenic chamber since the '70s. Backup singers Murphy, Barbara Payton and Laura Creamer bring all kinds of dimensions to the set as well, ranging from the gospel shadings of "Good for Me" to Creamer's sassy tom-tom drumming on "Her Strut." The four-piece Motor City horns, a relatively young group of Detroit crack musicians, also offer not only all the punch necessary but also playful showmanship, including some Spinner's-like digging choreography to go along with yet another strut, that taunting rhythmic progression that hallmarks Seger's "Come to Poppa" (his famous cover of Ann Peeble's "Come to Momma," like so much of what Seger does, paying homage to an integrated rock-and-soul tradition that sometimes seems forgotten today).
The show rocked hard to the end of the main set. Seger shouts "Hang onto your credit cards, boys," before launching into "Sunspot Baby" (about a fling with a girl who robs the character blind), "Horizontal Bop" (about what rock and roll is always about), and "Katmandu" (a song of supreme deliverance with Mark Chatfield tearing through Chuck Berry-style licks to find the power in the history). That would have been a fine closer, but unfinished business led to two encores, two songs each: "Against the Wind" and "Night Moves" answered by "Hollywood Nights" and "Rock and Roll Never Forgets," respectively, summing up the frustration and loss that only increase with age, and answering those feelings with the gifts of rock-and-roll abandon and compassion. It doesn't get much better than this.
Critic's Bias: I grew up in a place and time when Bob Seger's music was, quite literally, the soundtrack of our lives.
Critic's Notebook: Opener Frankie Ballard may actually illustrate the gap between the hard-won weight of '70s rock and the country that tries to emulate it today. At the same time, he sure knows how to sell "Fortunate Son," with a dedication to our troops that allows for every bit of anger that John Fogerty intended.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I'm lovin' this show more than ... well, than a lot of 'em. I know all the songs!"
Roll Me Away
Trying to Live My Life Without You
Fire Down Below
Down on Main Street
Old Time Rock and Roll
Real Mean Bottle
Good for Me
(five-minute break, literally)
Nutbush City Limits
Come to Poppa
Long Twin Silver Line
We've Got Tonight
Turn the Page
Against the Wind
Rock and Roll Never Forgets