- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

There’s trouble in Swing Town.It was obvious during an extended workout on “Fly Like an Eagle” Saturday night at Wolf Trap, when the bird was hijacked mid-flight by Steve Miller Band keyboardist Joseph Wooten. Mr. Wooten had just finished a fine electric piano solo, when he became possessed by the spirit of ill-conceived ideas.

Taking center stage, he proceeded to give us “Hip Hop Like an Eagle,” skipping about as he rapped on some socially conscious jive. Up to that point, the playing had been brilliant, but the rap took the wind right out from under its wings. I, for one, was not amused. Still, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

“Welcome to Swing Town,” Mr. Miller said at the start of the concert, promising to take the sold-out amphitheater on a tour of all sides of his music city, including the “west side, the east side, the blue side and the rock side.” Thankfully, the “rap side” stop was a brief one.

After landing the wounded eagle, Mr. Miller and his five-piece band blitzed through five of his biggest hits to wrap up the pre-encore portion of the two-hour show: “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock ‘n’ Me,” “Jungle Love,” “Jet Airliner” and “The Joker.” The crowd was on its feet and rocking throughout, getting just what it wanted.

Those singles and the albums that hatched them earned enough platinum awards to occupy an entire floor at Fort Knox. Too bad they’re such dorky songs. And too bad Mr. Miller has devoted so much of his considerable talent to pitching softballs to the mass audience yearning for top-40 pop.

To hear the Steve Miller Band at its best, go back to the 1968-71 era, when the band was brewing a heady, sometimes psychedelic mix of blues, rock and jazz on seminal albums like “Sailor” and “Brave New World.” Yet, many fans still seem only vaguely aware that Mr. Miller actually issued a two-LP best of (“Anthology”) album before “The Joker” made him a superstar. Fortunately, the man who got his first guitar lesson at the age of 5 from electric guitar innovator Les Paul and who cut his musical teeth competing for gigs with Muddy Waters in Chicago, hasn’t turned his back on the blues.

Mr. Miller dished up fellow Texas bluesman Freddie King’s “Tore Down” with all the trimmings, saying that Mr. King was the source for most of Steve Ray Vaughan’s licks. It was followed with an even more welcome surprise: “I Loved Another Woman,” gorgeous, haunting blues by Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green, replete with nifty time signature changes on the instrumental breaks.

On K.C. Douglas’ “Mercury Blues,” Mr. Miller said he was “tossing the keys” to harmonica-player extraordinaire Norton Buffalo, who proceeded to huff and puff to blow the house down. That number also showcased Mr. Miller’s guitar philosophy: That a dozen well-chosen notes are usually better for the blues than speed-demon fretboard runs.

Mr. Miller, now 60ish, looked great in jeans and a sport coat, and his hickory-smoked vocals are still 100 percent true. Indeed, he hit the high notes with every bit as much power as in his youth.

There was also a good helping of blues-rock from the early records, including “Space Cowboy,” “Gangster of Love” and “Living in the USA,” although each was a bit jazzier, and rocked less, than the originals. The latter, played as part of the encore, was dedicated to “all those serving in the armed forces around the world.”

On balance, there was plenty of evidence that Mr. Miller’s heart is still on the southside of Swing Town, where the blues still reign, and the city is always ready with open arms to welcome back one of its own. Saturday, he was halfway home.

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