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Arts and Entertainment

Steve Miller Band, Los Lobos @ Greek Theatre 07/11/10

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Number one among auto mechanics nationwide, Steve Miller is one of those American institutions whose songs will forever be identified with the age of Classic Rock. In contrast to some of the outsize personalities that emerged in the late sixties and early seventies, Miller never wore capes or hosted fireworks shows. He might be rock’s ultimate everyman; while he hasn’t had a hit since 1981’s “Abracadabra”, he’s got enough juice in his catalog to spend every summer putting on his Casual Friday duds, hoisting his Bud to the sky and finding the feel-good groove in any style he tries on.

Not even the cretins wearing “Disco Sucks” buttons in 1978 could resist “Swingtown”, whose beat, bass line and lyrics could have been ripped straight from the Commodores, yet sits easily alongside the straightahead cowbell rockers, blues vamps, mariachi ballads and spaced-out hippie meditations that make up his greatest hits. In Miller’s hands, it’s all as American as Creedence.

For any sixties-era rocker still making the rounds, capability and intensity are always going to be a concern, and it’s nice to see that Steve Miller the performer remains largely intact. His voice is clear and focused, occasionally a little weary but consistently on pitch, and his guitar playing retains its distinctive, relaxed-yet-prickly feel. Just about all of his best-known songs are pulled out for the occasion, though considering the stage curtain was adorned with a “Space Cowboy” graphic, it was surprising they forgot that one. But that leaves a mighty impressive string of indelible tunes, played faithfully to their original recordings. While most of Miller’s stage commentary was short and sweet, “Living In The USA” was preceded by a reminder that forty years after its Vietnam-era inspiration, we’re still fighting not one but two wars. The rest of the set was taken up with fan-favorite deep album cuts like “Shu Ba Du Du Ma Ma” and “Seasons” and a wide range of covers, many sung by recent band addition Sonny Charles, including “Nature Boy”, “Further On Up The Road” and a simmering take on Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”

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The band’s annual Southern California appearance had a touch of melancholy about it, following the passing of thirty-three year Miller Band veteran, vocalist and harmonica player Norton Buffalo. A solo acoustic performance of “Wild Mountain Honey”, a song that Miller estimated they’d performed together two thousand times, was dedicated to his memory. But in a nod to a more hopeful future, Miller invited pint-size hair rocker Dillon Brown, one of the students of his “Kids Rock Free” program, on stage to shred quite impressively through his last three songs (also asking fans to donate to the school via text message, including ads on the big-screen, in what must be the first time I’ve had a rock star shill me to my face at a non-benefit show.)

Los Lobos are one of Los Angeles’ greatest natural resources, a superb band with a catalog of songs as wide as it is deep. On this night the band chose most of the set list from its most Blues BBQ-appropriate numbers, at times resembling a spicier version of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. While they’re never less than a good time, and the musicianship is always impeccable, I like them best at their most weird (as heard on the albums Kiko and Colossal Head), or their most traditional, and only a small sprinkling of that material made it into the show. But if the set lacked the broad focus of their headlining gigs, it was still an engaging hour-long trip into a different kind of Americana.