“A traveling man’s affliction makes it hard to settle down,” as the Doobie Brothers’ Patrick Simmons wrote in “Neal’s Fandango,” the song that opened the band’s 1975 record, Stampede.
The Doobie Brothers in 2023 are doing anything but settling down.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020, the band whose core came together at San Jose State University in 1970 have kept their long train running almost continuously since first urging the world to listen to the music on their second LP, Toulouse Street, back in 1972.
In the midst of a 50th anniversary tour that was supposed to get underway in 2020, the outfit once favored by the Hells Angels and now loved by Baby Boomers and subsequent generations the world over, carved its own niche on the southern edge of the 1960s-70s Bay Area music scene and has remained one of America’s most enduring sonic gems ever since.
Through lineup changes, shifts in style, personal trials and a short hiatus, the core of founding members of guitarist/vocalists Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston, along with longtime members John McFee on guitars and fiddle and Michael McDonald on vocals and keyboard, have been having a well-deserved moment for the past few years.
On Dec. 15, the latest iteration of the Grammy-winning band — with John Cowan on bass, Marc Russo (saxophone), Ed Toth (drums) and Marc Quiñones (percussion) — musically christened the newly opened Acrisure Arena in Thousand Palms, California, in the greater Palm Springs area and smack dab in the heart of the Coachella Valley.
That was after cutting the ribbon on the 11,000-seater a day earlier, when Acrisure, developed by Oak View Group, Live Nation and the Seattle Kraken, with a sold-out Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock show.
“It’s a real celebration and one that’s been a long time coming,” said Karim Karmi, the Doobie Brothers’ manager (along with Irving Azoff, co-founder of Pollstar parent company OVG), when asked about the honor of opening a brand new Acrisure Arena. “We were planning on launching it in 2020, but it got postponed along with a lot of other things in the world. When we were finally able to bring it to their fans, it was enormously successful.”
The Doobies blend rhythm and blues, folk, rock and country styles with touches of bluegrass and a heavy infusion of soul since McDonald joined the band on tour in 1975 after Johnson fell ill. The influence of Black artists was evident long before McDonald came aboard.
Johnston, whose aircraft engineer brother brought home 45 RPM records when they were growing up in Visalia, California, had fallen in love with artists like Jimmy Reed and the “Three Kings of the Blues” (Freddie, B.B. and Albert – no relation), he explains in the book, “Long Train Runnin’: Our Story of the Doobie Brothers” published by St. Martin’s Press in 2022, that he wrote with Simmons and co-author Chris Epting.
In the late 1960s, Johnston played for all-Black audiences at places like the Black Elks Club in Tulare, California, in a band called the Charades, and as a high school freshman saw James Brown and the Famous Flames perform at the Fresno Civic Auditorium. “It was a classic-soul revue show. Something I had never seen before and I was knocked out,” Johnston wrote. “He was electrifying. It was a professional show in size and intensity, that was unusual for acts that came through the (San Joaquin) Valley.”
Simmons, who grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, and later “on the hills above Santa Cruz,” had disparate tastes that ran more toward Ricky Nelson and Liberace, who he describes in the book as “a brilliant technical player” who “blended that precision with a knack for showmanship.”
On tour, the band taps into a wealth of material spanning all five decades, including a few numbers from its 2021 record, Liberté.
“The fan reaction to having the entire catalogue of the band featured has been incredible,” Karmi said.
The Doobie Brothers touring history, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports, includes 708 shows from 1987 through 2022 with a total of $190.6 million in grosses and a whopping 3.9 million tickets sold.
The band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2021-22 averaged more than $477,000 in grosses from 5,663 tickets sold per show.
The tour’s top reported attendance was 8,915 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena Oct. 25, 2021, and the highest gross was $834,737 at Kia Forum in Inglewood, California, Oct. 9, 2021.
“One of the best things about this tour is being able to present the entire catalog,” said Johnston. “And we don’t just do one here, then go to there. It’s interspersed through the set, so you get a combination of all.”
As for the various phases the band has been through, Johnston said it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
“I had to drop out for a little while,” he said of parting with the band from 1975 to 1982, when he was part of a Doobies farewell tour concert.
The Doobies then went on hiatus for five years, re-forming for a brief 1987 tour that led to a full-fledged reunion, with Johnston back in the fold. They’ve been rockin’ down the highway ever since.
“It’s a take-it-as-it-comes kind of thing,” Simmons said.
Recalling the band’s start, Johnston said San Jose and what’s become known as the Silicon Valley was “a quiet, small little place.”
Over the years, the band’s lineup has included bassists Dave Shogren and Tiran Porter, drummers John Hartman and Keith Knudsen, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne and others.
The Doobie Brothers have held a unique place in the hearts of music fans over the past half century.
In 1978 they appeared on the popular television series “What’s Happening!!” and in 1996, they performed a pre-game show at Super Bowl XXX at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.
Asked about favorite venues, Johnston said Red Rocks Amphitheatre is among the most spectacular but added that picking one isn’t easy.
“We just did a tour of a lot of smaller theaters, we played the Fox Theater (in Atlanta),” Simmons said. “Those classic theaters are nice, but I like the outdoor venues too, like in Saratoga (California),” added McFee. “Vina Robles in Paso Robles, California, is a nice place too.”
In “Neal’s Fandango,” Simmons wrote about being inspired to hit the road by tales of legendary counterculture figure Neal Cassady, who inspired the main character in Jack Keroac’s classic book “On The Road” and was a member of the Merry Pranksters. Simmons also describes becoming weary for home, which then was a place called Loma Prieta that would later become infamous for the deadly 1989 earthquake that rocked the Bay Area.
The call of the highway isn’t what it used to be, Simmons said. “We get paid to travel and we play for free,” he joked.
So what keeps this band running?
“It’s the people,” said Simmons.
“I think we all feel lucky to still be making music and people want to hear it,” McFee said.
“Music is more than a business for us,” Simmons said. “We enjoy playing.”