The Doobie Brothers have been an FM mainstay for years. Now in its fifth decade of touring and recording, the San Jose-based band repeatedly shuffled members in and out of its lineup without compromising its characteristic roots-rock sound. Today, the group still anchors its roster around guitar-picking cofounders Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons, and thirty-plus year utility man John McFee. The Doobies recently issued the highly-regarded documentary film Let the Music Play and rocked Cleveland’s 2013 Moondog Coronation Ball. Their pending summer tour finds the guys sharing a handful of dates with The Steve Miller Band.
Cleveland doesn’t appear on the Doobie’s itinerary (although Sylvania / Toledo does), but those eager to revisit the band’s energetic live show can check out the newly-reissued DVD / CD Doobie Brothers: Live at Wolf Trap, available now from Eagle Rock (first time on Blu-Ray).
Recorded in concert at Washington, D.C.’s premiere outdoor venue on July 25, 2004, Live at Wolf Trap captures the stalwart ensemble at its peak—and accompanied by an impeccable horn section. It ranks among the group’s greatest video performances, and marks the last film appearances by longtime drummers Keith Knudsen and Michael Hossack, who’ve since passed away.
Johnston, Simmons, and McFee barnstorm through a sublime set of old and new songs, with emphasis placed on familiar material from the Doobie’s early days. They greet an enthusiastic Wolf Trap crowd with Toulhouse Street classics “Rockin’ Down the Highway” and “Jesus Is Just Alright” before breaking out acoustic guitars (and dobro) for “Dangerous.” Sax player Marc Russo enjoys the first of many solo spotlights on “Another Park, Another Sunday.”
Clad in black jeans and matching tee, the mustachioed Johnston remains the Doobie’s focal point on stage. Whether strumming acoustic guitars or playing searing leads on an electric, Johnston commands attention but still puts in the extra effort to connect with his audience, goading spectators to their feet with an wave or punctuating musical shifts with fist-pumps and off-mic shouts. His voice is still powerful and rich, and he sings a majority of the tunes here.
Resident finger-style guitar guru Simmons appears relaxed in jeans and a beret, working his magic on an assortment of instruments and handling lead vocals on “South City Midnight Lady,” “Clear as the Driven Snow,” and his signature “Black Water.” McFee alternates between acoustic and electric guitars—but also plays slide and pedal steel. He even breaks out his fiddle for a few of the band’s bluegrass / country tunes. The two men trade licks front-and-center on Sibling Rivalry track “Five Corners,” plying their nimble digits. Other “unplugged” numbers showcased mid-set include “Steamer Lane,” “Snake Man,” and—from the Doobie’s eponymous 1971 debut—“Nobody.”
Tandem drummers Knudsen and Hossack keep time on opposite rostrums, sandwiching percussionist M.B. Gordy’s congas and cymbals between their kits. Dynamic bassist Skylark thumps out the grooves while wearing sandals and pajama pants, his left leg jerking in constant synch with the pulsating rhythms. Keyboardist Guy Allison indulges in a little piano solo on his Roland A-90 before the band segues into Act II with “Takin’ It to The Streets.” The end of the main set is comprised of the Doobie’s most famous cover songs: Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” the Holland / Dozier / Holland-penned “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While),” and Bobby Day gem “Little Bitty Pretty One.” The guys leave the shed hungry for more with 1973 hit “Long Train Runnin’.”
The high-octane encore unleashes the riff-rockin’ “China Grove,” backtrack “Without You” (which—along with “Spirit,” People Gotta Love Again,” and “Nobody”—doesn’t feature on the CD version), and obligatory (but always shimmery) sing-along jam “Listen to the Music.”
Bonus DVD materials include a virtual “Backstage Pass” with band interviews and behind-the-scenes footage taken by family members. Johnston and Simmons recall the old days and (joined by McFee, Knudsen, and Hossack), offer their sidemen praise. Bloopers find McFee asking for a teleprompter (“Walter Cronkite has one!”) and Johnston getting tongue-tied. On “Doobie-aoke” Skylark vents frustration over a woman in the front row who—for the concert’s first two songs—took it upon herself to sing into one of the band’s strategically-placed audience microphones. Viewing (and hearing) clips of said fan (which naturally didn’t make it into the finished film), one sympathizes with the bassist, who tells Hossack the woman nearly “took him out” of performance mode. Elsewhere, McFee jokes over a guitar pick dropped by Johnston at an inopportune moment, and Doobies manager Bruce Cohn reflects on the group’s prolific past. Johnston bemoans the ulcer that kept him from the band in the late ‘70s but offers only kind words for the musician who replaced him: Michael McDonald.