Concert Review | The Doobie Brothers Were on Fire at The Amp

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A little haze was not going to stop this party.

In fact, the atmosphere was just fine at the sold-out Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre on Wednesday evening for a concert by The Doobie Brothers.

Despite a hazardous air-quality warning prompted by smoke from the Canadian wildfires, fans were undeterred.

The Doobies were also OK with it. “I haven’t seen this much haze since … the tour bus,” said the iconic band’s co-founder and singer-guitarist Pat Simmons, drawing laughs.

The concert was part of the Rock & Roll Hall of Famers’ 50th anniversary tour, which is in its final stages. It was a two-hour-plus, hit-laden journey that highlighted all of the band’s phases, albums and its trio of songwriters: Simmons, Tom Johnston and Michael McDonald.

Simmons and Johnston started the band in 1970 in the San Francisco Bay area. Though it was a time of fierce rock competition, the Doobies conquered the world within a couple of years.

Johnston had to leave the band in 1975 with health problems, and that’s when McDonald was brought in to fill the void. The band knew McDonald because he was with Steely Dan and the two bands had toured together. McDonald would become a permanent part of the act, helping to shape its second phase.

Johnston reunited with the Doobs for this tour but had to drop off a few months ago because of back problems. Bass player John Cowan handled lead vocals on the many tunes that Johnston wrote and was a more than reasonable facsimile.

Rounding out the core was guitarist (and pedal steel and fiddle player) John McFee, whom Simmons called “the new guy.” McFee has been with the band only since 1978.

Marc Quinones handled percussion, and Ed Toth was on drums.

The Doobies have been around for over half a century and long ago achieved rarified heights. Still, Simmons thanked fans for getting the band named to the Rock Hall in 2020.

The Doobies’ election to the Rock Hall was actually never in doubt – a slam dunk, really – but it’s cool that they remember their roots and stay humble and sincere.

With video footage of their early days on the big screen over the stage, the Doobs played a 24-song retrospective set, sounding as vibrant and dynamic as ever, and with the details of each song fully intact.

Very few bands have three great but sharply varying songwriters, and the set list reflected it. Songs veered from Simmons’ Americana-ish acoustic sweetness, to Johnston’s big-riff biker-bar guitar rock, to McDonald’s piano plunking power chords, New Orleans flow and distinctive voice.

McDonald’s “Minute by Minute” was followed by Johnston’s rousing rocker “Without You” – and so it went for the whole show.

The Doobies have always described themselves as a family or a brotherhood, and although their songs are different in style, they stand together quite naturally.

While it took a half-century for the Doobs to get to this plateau, they are not just taking a victory lap.

“There is rumor of a new album,” Simmons teased, before playing a new song, “Better Days.” It’s an optimistic tune in which he shares his “every day is a blessing” mindset. It could also become a salve for these times of turmoil.

“This might just be the best day ever,” he said while introducing the song. At this point in the show, the smoke from burning forests became a worry for another day.

The concert produced a fresh highlight with almost every song, from the opening riffs of “Take Me in Your Arms” to the solid harmonies on “Dependin’ on You.”

The long interlude of “South City Midnight Lady” became a beautiful tapestry of instruments and styles. The brilliant Marc Russo’s alto saxophone solo segued into the melody, with McFee on pedal steel.

For the instrumental “Slack Key Soquel Rag,” McDonald – with his shock of white hair – rose from his keyboard and joined Simmons and McFee on mandolin.

After closing with the guitar glory of “Long Train Runnin’” (which featured another great Russo sax rumble) and “China Grove,” the encore  featured the big three’s three biggest hits.

Simmons’ “Black Water” was meant to be played outdoors on a summer night, with a hazy moon overhead.

McDonald and Russo did a long sax and piano intro for “Takin’ It to the Streets” that featured an embedded instrumental take on Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” It was entirely appropriate.

Johnston’s feel-good anthem “Listen to the Music” was the final piece before the band faded into the night by jamming out to Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic.”

Pictured at top: The Doobie Brothers perform at the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre on Wednesday. On stage from left are Pat Simmons, Marc Quinones, John McFee, Ed Toth, Michael McDonald and Marc Russo.

Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.