LISTENING STATION: Steve Miller Band mine their influences

Setzer tunes up, rocks out with collection of instrumentals

Steve Miller and guitar player Kenny Lee Lewis perform in Duesseldorf, Germany, in November.Steve Miller and guitar player Kenny Lee Lewis perform in Duesseldorf, Germany, in November.
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Steve Miller Band

Let Your Hair Down

Loud & Proud/Roadrunner Records

Last summer, the Steve Miller Band released its first album in nearly 20 years. “Bingo!” was a mix of electric blues and roadhouse rock ‘n’ roll, featuring unique interpretations of songs originally written by legends including B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. Fans gave the album a welcome reception, and “Bingo!” topped the Billboard blues charts.

The group returns this week with “Let Your Hair Down,” another collection of blues standards recorded during the same sessions that spawned “Bingo!” More polished than its predecessor, it favors a crisp, economic sound that occasionally borders on antiseptic.

Steve Miller and his revolving cast of backup musicians have toured regularly, even during their 17-year boycott of the recording studio. The precision that results from a heavy tour schedule is evident on “Let Your Hair Down.” With R&B singer Sonny Charles splitting vocal duties with Mr. Miller, the band has become a slick blues-rock machine, trading raw power for pitch-perfect efficiency.

“Let Your Hair Down” still packs a wallop with its inventive arrangements. The band restructures the groove on Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied,” turns the distinctive horn riff from Rosco Gordon’s “Just a Little Bit” into a harmonized guitar lick and showcases the harmonica skills of the late Norton Buffalo, who died in 2009.

Pop and country music have always been part of the Steve Miller sound, but “Let Your Hair Down” boils down the band’s influences to a single genre. Stripping away the synthesizers that filled “Swingtown” and the psychedelic ambience of “Fly Like an Eagle,” it shows where the group’s roots have always rested. More than 40 years since their inception, these guys still can play the blues.

Brian Setzer

“Setzer Goes INSTRUMENTAL!”

Surfdog Records

Ever the Stray Cat, Brian Setzer has wandered from genre to genre over the years, playing retro rockabilly and rootsy rock ‘n’ roll during the ‘80s before joining the swing revival one decade later. He turns over a new leaf with “Setzer Goes INSTRUMENTAL!” the first instrumental album of his career.

As its cheeky title suggests, “Setzer Goes INSTRUMENTAL!” is a lighthearted affair. The six original songs have names like “Go-Go Godzilla” and “Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown,” and they’re filled with an unorthodox mix of jazz, bluegrass and midcentury rock. The covers, including Earl Scruggs’ “Earl’s Blues” and Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” cover similar territory.

Linking everything together is Mr. Setzer’s electric guitar. Compared to most instrumental albums, this one is scant when it comes to the actual instruments, with only the occasional drum set and upright bass providing support for Mr. Setzer’s guitar leads. He makes the most of that empty space, throwing jazz chords into the unlikeliest of places and harmonizing his own solos — heavy-metal style — during Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.”

Covering well-known classics is a tricky business. Hearing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” without Bill Monroe’s twang or Elvis Presley’s croon can be jarring, and Mr. Setzer is smart enough to honor the original. He also gives the song a new voice, introducing the basic melody on guitar before allowing himself some wiggle room to bend and shred his way around the fret board.

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