Last year at this time, I draped myself against the same fence watching both Eric Burdon and Steppenwolf at the Naperville Rib Fest, which for the past 25 years, has raised more than 12 million dollars for the prevention of child abuse and domestic violence. This time, I’ve had the opportunity to see each headlining classic rock band perform over the span of three nights as many of us multitasked: dancing to the music, while monitoring the fickle Midwest skies for possible downpours. Here is a glimpse of what I saw…


Friday, June 29, 2012, Steve Miller Band

The six-piece local cover band, Arra, which opened for Steve Miller did a fine job of working up the audience (which was steadily increasing in size) with singable, big-haired hits from the 1980s. Because the fest was celebrating its 25th year, cupcakes were dispensed to the first row, and, greedily, I grabbed one, as I knew the food lines would be impossible to navigate once the headliners started.

A local DJ announced that we would be hearing “The greatest rock band you have ever heard.” During the set thunderstorm warnings were printed along the big screen, though those of us with crossed fingers felt sure we’d stay dry.

Miller was dressed simply, in a grey shirt and denim, while his rhythm section was shrouded in black, though the cherry red and cinnamon shades of their guitars brightened up the stage. Even more crazy colour came from the keyboard’s flashing neon lights that switched from neon blue to red and green.

Miller opened with the rocking ‘Jungle Love’ at full-speed and then switched to a full-blown blues tune, ‘Texas’, but by the time he reached ‘The Stake’, a song which has electrifying blues licks and the enchanting chorus of “Nobody Loves You Like The Way I Do”, there was no turning back.

It was razor-ship riffs and super-tight vocal harmonies. Fortunately, for any guitar students in the back, the big screen showed close up Miller’s skilled fingers doing pull-offs and rapid slides in quick succession. It was something you don’t find these days; a refreshingly long solo that shows off the artist’s skills, but that is also graceful and melodic.

The quasi-romantic/psychedelic ‘Abracadabra’ held just the right touch for this easygoing audience; many of who were surprisingly young, yet knew all the lyrics! Several ladies in ponytails, ahead of me, started swaying in tandem when he sang, “I feel the magic in your caress.” Miller’s comical slides that breezed up and down the fret board added unabashed levity.

From the record ‘Bingo’, most recent Steve Miller Band member Sonny Charles sang the blues and performed some awesome choreographic moves, while his fellow guitarists followed suit. Then,another fun song from ‘The Joker’ was announced “for anyone who wants to shake a tail feather.” ‘Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma’ was big on light-hearted appeal with a bass line that was impossible to ignore.

Sonny and Steve then performed a duet, which included some entertaining verbal sparring as Sonny wailed: “I’m a lonely child” and showed off some more sublime steps.

Miller turned the tables on their backsides next by emitting a growling pattern, while singing ‘All My Love’ and then plunging into the transformational ‘I Want to Make the World Turn Around.’

“I don’t want to live in the world of darkness…”` “Gotta build the earth, stop tearing it down…

‘Serenade’ was a good distractor from the blues section of the set – it was indeed serene, bordering on the psychedelic and enjoyable, but it was the rock tunes that really kept the intergenerational audience attentive – and, to that end, when Miller took off with ‘Fly Like an Eagle’, and ‘Jet Airliner,’ heads bobbed and everybody sang. Then as storm warnings flashed across the screen, Miller apologetically informed us that they would have to leave the stage as lightning had been sighted.

But the rain had still not come, so the audience begged for more and got it. Though the set ended much earlier than planned, the Steve Miller Band made up for it by putting their all into their finales: ‘Rock ‘n’ Me’ and, of course, ‘The Joker’. The Steve Miller Band seriously looked like they would have granted many more requests if the skies had been more forgiving.


Saturday: June 30, 2012 Joe Walsh

Radio personality, Steve Dahl, has known Joe Walsh for thirty years so his introduction of the band was more than justified and insured nostalgia. Dahl walked up to the stage and imitated his buddy by shouting “How ya doing?” into the mic, a little inside joke that many fans found amusing.

The supercharged lineup was comprised of three soulful singers, three percussionists, Joe and his rhythm section. Joe played a long, tall introduction on the first of many fancy guitars and after displaying his slow, easy smile burst into the contagious lyrics of ‘Welcome to the Club.’

Keeping his guitar tech busy must have been an important goal. After this first song, he was handed another. On this more acoustic sounding instrument, he played the thought-provoking ‘A Life of Illusion’, a good choice, as the story is about being on the crossroads: “Taking my time, trying to decide what to do/Seems to me you don’t want to talk about it…” And for another ode to a simpler time, the third percussionist onstage shook his tambourine.

Walsh’s new album ‘Analog Man’, of course, deserved the spotlight and some of the best tracks were featured. The album features palpable co-writes by Walsh and Tommy Lee James and instrumental flourishes by Ringo Starr, David Crosby and Graham Nash.

To set the stage for the theme song, a visual of a vintage, larger-than-life analog system appeared and a set of fingers punching down heavy keys. Walsh, in his Johnny Walker/Jim Beam voice, lamented: “100 channels, nothing is on. Endless commercials…”

The analog echo looked comically archaic on the huge screen, compared to today’s petite electronic gizmos, but the analog man, himself, played a solo that was first-rate: clean, evocative and melodic. Joe Walsh is a pitch hitter who commands the tonal ballpark.

The song pokes fun at those with a short attention span, so you have to wonder, “Could any guitar really sustain Walsh’s interest for the entire night?” This time, he switched to a sexy black model and took out his fibreglass slide, which he moved in long, cool northbound movements, exaggerating each sound with his pliable facial muscles. ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ is to this day a tremendous, virtuosic vehicle for Walsh.

He deserved a vocal mini-break and got one when his backing singers performed a tribute to Levon Helm, the drummer with the Band, who passed away this April. The gospel-tinged rendition of Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’ was beautiful, but this restless audience was raring to get back on their feet and rock. Another offering from the new album, ‘Lucky That Way,’ matched that expectation.

Walsh performed ‘Bomber’, a James Gang gem, this time, gliding his slide across a stunning blonde Les Paul while the drummer kept up a military-style pattern. From piercing melody to muted strum, from fragments of Hendrix to ‘Bolero’, this tune attracted attention for all the right reasons.

And without fanfare, Walsh, again, captivated a new six-stringed girl: a shimmering black Ibanez.

“Everywhere we look, we’re fighting.” the lyric began, amid visuals of a burning city.
‘Turn to Stone’ gave us some time to reflect.

‘In the City’, which was used in ‘The Warriors’, a film about New York rival gangs that pillage the subway, is hard rock honey. “With my back against the wall, no one’s there to catch you when you fall.” That sense of idle desperation was made evident in each passage.

Another one from the James Gang vault, ‘Funk # 49’ (Walsh currently has a tune, ‘Funk 50’ on Analog Man, as well) showcases a scintillating bass arrangement. The musicians onstage had plenty of chances to exhibit solo chops at this point; the two main drummers performed in tandem, and, then, of course, Walsh felt that irresistible urge to swipe guitars –for a snowy-white model, this time.

The autobiographical ‘Life’s Been Good’ brought immediate cheers.
“I live in hotels, tear out the walls…” refers to the old incarnation of Walsh, the rebellious rocker eager to trash his suite, but the line, “Everybody says, ‘I’m cool’” is spot on.

Getting progressively more playful, Walsh kicked up invisible dust, preening for fans at stage right. ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ kept that invincible energy throttling at full force, but his encore ‘All Night Long’ was the real stand out; it’s a gritty, rockabilly, working man’s anthem, and what could be more appropriate as we approach a much-needed holiday weekend? Thankfully, tonight Thor withheld the heavy rains, so we could enjoy the vitality of one of America’s finest showmen.


Sunday, July 1, ZZ Top

Bassist Dusty Hill and guitarist Billy Gibbons have been together for forty years, but didn’t always have their signature, overgrown beards. Ask drummer Frank Beard who actually arrived in a clean-shaven state to an important meeting one day, after a long break from the other members and then noticed that his band mates had somehow evolved…

But besides the difference in hairstyle, the Texas trio shares a deep love of traditional blues. They even named themselves ZZ Top because they thought so highly of another musician with catchy initials: BB King. They also attract rock and new wave audiences, but it was their 1973 album ‘Tres Hombres’ that put them on the map.

Tonight they walk onstage looking typically weathered. The bass and guitar look ancient and they are wearing sunglasses, as expected, so it is hard at first to form a connection. But after a few songs, you get used to their formulated dance steps and hoarse voices. Their opener is a mainstream cover of Sam and Dave’s ‘I Thank You’, which gives any newcomer out there a chance to take in their persona.

Their sound goes from soul to raw to raucous in a heartbeat and those guitars, at second glance, look more and more like slices of lumber cut hastily down with a rusty saw. The guitar straps look like something a guerilla would wear to an uprising. Are those bullet casings? These guys are unconventional, but lots of fun to watch.

The set is a good mix. There’s ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’, which is spiked with pop, ‘It’s Only Love’ with riffs that resemble the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Legs’, which is the most suggestive, but the least memorable.

‘My Head’s in Mississippi’ is probably their best ramblin’ man song and has the most interesting lyric: “Last night I saw a cowgirl/She was floating across the ceiling.” And why wouldn’t you want to sing about ‘Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers’ at a Rib Fest?

‘Pincushion’ is about being sabotaged by a lover. Ouch! But they also played a song about style. ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ gave Hill and Gibbons a great excuse to change into colourful jackets and trade in their workaday guitars for crazy ones with feathers and sheared sheep fur.

Of course, ‘La Grange’ and ‘Tush’ are guaranteed favorites. Gibbons performed some clean, lengthy solos and Beard’s sticks got a good work out all night long. Some of us were surprised, though, that the band didn’t plug the material from their recent EP, ‘Texicali’ and that they ended their set without warning. It was a warm night and there was a full moon, and, especially since it was the last night of the fest, I’m sure we could have sucked down our beers and wrangled up enough energy to flick our lighters for an encore.


Photos of Steve Miller and ZZ Top by Jim Summaria www.jimsummariaphoto.com

















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