Steve Miller Explores His Roots in Special NYC Show

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Steve Miller & JLV

(l-r) Brianna Thomas, Michael Rodriguez, Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan + Mike Flanigan; Photo by Lawrence Sumulong for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Steve Miller: Out of This World, With Jimmie Vaughan
Rose Theater/Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City
April 6, 2016

Steve Miller is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week because, presumably, he scored a lot of hits in the ’70s and early ’80: “Fly Like an Eagle,” “The Joker,” “Abracadabra” and several others. Before that, he was also a prime mover among the game-changing San Francisco artists of the late ’60s, headlining often with his Steve Miller Band at the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom, storied rooms where psychedelic music was born.

But none of that was on display when Miller performed at the Rose Theater in New York, the first of three dates scheduled for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s largest room this week. The show was titled “Out of This World” but it was the subtitle, “Ma Rainey Meets Miles Davis,” that was the real hint as to what was to come. A diehard blues and jazz fan since childhood – the late jazz guitar giant Les Paul was his godfather — Miller was here to pay tribute to his roots. He did so impressively, in a near-two-hour show that found him reaching back as far as the early 20th century for material. He played only one song of his own, 1976’s “Take the Money and Run,” unrecognizable as a gritty blues. The rest of his hits were not missed; there was plenty here to savor.

Miller assembled a stellar cast for the occasion. His pianist and music director, Shelly Berg – dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami – doubled as arranger. A powerful vocalist, Brianna Thomas, provided both harmonies and a few knockout lead vocals. They began the show as a trio, Miller sans guitar, with “Sweet and Low,” a song from the 1930s penned by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, establishing the bluesy tone of the evening from the outset. But things didn’t really get cookin’ until the band members filed in – a tight ensemble featuring a crack rhythm section (drummer Eric Harland was superb) and a trio of horn men – and then Jimmie Vaughan.

Vaughan’s blues bona fides are unimpeachable: Since he came onto the scene in the late ’70s as lead guitarist with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, he’s not only kept Texas roots music and blues alive by paying homage to its originators, but aided incalculably in taking it into the future. Vaughan brought Hammond organist Mike Flanigan with him, and the collective – sometimes all of them, for other tunes not; sometimes led by Miller, sometimes Vaughan – surveyed a set list of perfectly chosen chestnuts, ranging from Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” to Rosco Gordon’s “Just a Little Bit,” Jimmy Reed’s “Caress Me Baby” to Roy Milton’s “R.M. Blues.” Miller’s vocals in general tended toward his smoother, more nuanced side, authoritative but loose enough for the blues; his guitar work, as ever, was economical and impactful, his slide work particularly strong, especially in tandem with Vaughan’s virtuosic licks.

Miller JALC 2

Shelly Berg, Steve Miller, Yasushi Nakamura + Jimmie Vaughan; Photo by Lawrence Sumulong for Jazz at Lincoln Center

Miller introduced a raw take on Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Gangster of Love” with a hilarious tale of playing the tune at age 12 for surprised Texas frat boys, but it was for the finale that everything came together for this somewhat makeshift outfit (Miller said they rehearsed 23 tunes in a day and a half). Prior to launching into it, Miller explained that the idea was to bring together the breadth of influences suggested by the “Ma Rainey Meets Miles Davis” slogan: the band would sing “C.C. Rider,” a blues classic recorded by Rainey in 1924, over the changes of “All Blues,” a Miles composition recorded for the trumpeter’s iconic Kind of Blue album in 1959. Amazingly, it worked.

Davis and Miller once shared a show together in 1970 at Fillmore East (both of them opening for Neil Young and Crazy Horse). Miles was famously unimpressed with Miller that night, later tossing some barbed invectives his way in his autobiography. One can only imagine what Davis would have made of this – Steve Miller, now on the board of directors at Jazz at Lincoln Center, playing one of his most famous compositions. Somehow, though, it’s hard to imagine even the crustiest jazz purist not getting behind this ingeniously executed groove.

View a live stream of Miller’s “Out of This World: Ma Rainey Meets Miles Davis” shows on Saturday, April 9th at 7 PM and 9:30 PM ET here.

Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Ashlyn
    #1 Ashlyn 8 April, 2016, 10:59

    It says the live stream is available October 9, but I think you mean April 9 (tomorrow).

    Reply this comment
  2. Nick
    #2 Nick 8 April, 2016, 12:38

    Mike Finnagan, not Flanigan.

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