Boz Scaggs with the Robert Cray Band and Jeff LeBlanc, Meijer Gardens Amphitheater, Grand Rapids Michigan, August 22, 2022.
Fair warning: there was absolutely nothing prog about this show. And there didn’t have to be — my wife, my friends and I got the good time vibes we came for, along with about 2000 other locals, if sometimes from some unexpected directions.
Case in point: opening act Jeff LeBlanc. (All together now: “Who?”) A solo act like many others: one guy with his guitars, a way with catchy melodies that you might hear over the PA system at a place like Walgreens (he said it, not me!) and great taste in covers. Pulling out hometowner Al Green’s soul classic “Let’s Stay Together” as his third tune, he had the crowd firmly on his side by the end of his 15-minute set. If LeBlanc’s music is a bit anonymous, his affable stage presence still provided a great way to ease us into the evening.
Then, the Robert Cray Band took the stage for a absorbing hour of down home goodies. While Cray caught the attention of the 1980s blues scene on guitar, and still showcases great 12-bar tunes like the claustrophobic “Phone Booth” in his set, his singing and songwriting have always had broader horizons, stretching into R&B, soul and beyond. Supported by Les Falconer’s solid drumming, Richard Cousins’ booming bass and Dover “White Cliff” Weinberg’s idiomatic organ work, Cray powered through captivating originals like “Anything You Want”, “I Guess I Showed Her” and the humorous, instrumental Booker T homage “Hip Tight Onions”, singing and playing his heart out even with the sun in his eyes. But it was on quiet tunes such as “I Shiver” and the closer “Time Makes Two” that Cray really impressed, bringing his arresting solo breaks down to near silence and taking the rowdy audience with him. The standing ovation at the end — for a man who didn’t even play his biggest hit, “Smoking Gun” — showed that everyone with ears to hear knew they had just seen a master at work.
Then it was time for Boz Scaggs — sauntering into the spotlight with his six-piece backing band on front of a crowd that expected the hits and wound up getting more than they bargained for. Sure, Scaggs kicked off with “What Can I Say” — the opening track from his smash album Silk Degrees — then kept the slick, disco-edged soul of that record going with hit-radio favorites like “JoJo” and “Lowdown”. But he also dove into his most recent, rootsy effort Out of the Blues with tracks like the gritty “Rock and Stick”, Don Robey’s lush “The Feeling Is Gone” and the piledriving “Radiator 110”. Not to mention his own drop-dead gorgeous ballads “Harbor Lights” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me” (the cue for couples to snuggle as darkness fell and the temperature dropped). Through it all, Scaggs’ laconic, behind-the-beat singing and his effortless falsetto work revealed another master, who’d come through his flash of fame to the decades beyond, with his chops and his instincts for what makes great music intact.
Throughout, Eric Crystal shone on saxes and melodica, as well as utility keys and guitar; Mike Logan laid down smooth, supple work on organ, synths and electric piano; guitarist Mike Miller and legendary bassist Willie Weeks proved that the right few notes equal maximum groove; and a great drummer/percussionist duo (whose names I didn’t catch — your contributions are welcome!) not only kept the rhythms percolating, but joined with Logan to nail the high backing vocals that gave Scaggs’ hits some of their glossy sheen.
And, unsurprisingly for folks who delved deeper than those hits, Scaggs and the band could rock, too! Not only did Silk Degrees’ deep cut “Georgia” and the set closer “Lido Shuffle” roar out of the starting blocks, the band came back for encores “It’s Over” and Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” ready to rumble, with Crystal duckwalking across the stage and Miller ripping off some spellbinding leads. Then, acknowledging the rowdy, wildly applauding audience (“You guys play rough!”) and pushing against the township’s noise ordinance, Scaggs belted out the fiercest song of the night, “Breakdown Dead Ahead”, for a perfectly chosen finale.
To some extent, the careers of both Scaggs (even in the wake of his success) and Cray suffered from the change in American radio that happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when rock stations corporatized and honed their playlists to focus on Album-Oriented Rock. In the process they dumped the prog epics this site focuses on — but they also dropped anything that even paid homage to black music like the proverbial hot potato. (I’d heard at least a third of Scaggs’ setlist on Detroit rock radio back in the day — but only up till about 1979. After that, crickets.) So it’s possible Scaggs and Cray might have been bigger back in the day; but given the rapt reception they received this past Monday night, people seem realize that, whatever fruits of fame might have eluded these artists over the years, they still deliver the goods.
— Rick Krueger