Steve Miller Band’s ‘Welcome to the Vault’ Reviewed

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What’s left to offer in the retrospective department when you’ve already released AnthologyBest of 1968-1973Greatest Hits 1974-78, Young Hearts: Complete Greatest HitsUltimate Hits and several other noteworthy compilations? For rock’s Steve Miller Band, the answer is a boxed set that completely eschews the hit recordings that powered their career in favor of alternate versions, demos, and rare live tracks, 38 of which have not previously been released.

Called Welcome to the Vault, the package includes three CDs, plus a DVD that contains live performances culled from a variety of sources. The discs come packaged in a 100-page hardcover book whose cover sports a 3D version of the cover art from 1977’s Book of Dreams. Inside are numerous photos, 10 guitar picks, four postcards, a poster, a backstage pass and an informative 9,000-word essay about Miller’s career by critic David Fricke.

Watch the live performance of his #1 hit, “Abracadabra”

Thirty-one of the album’s 52 tracks date from 1973 to 1982, the band’s heyday, when they scored major hits with numbers like “The Joker,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock’n Me,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner” and “Abracadabra.”

Watch the official video for “The Joker,” which premiered Nov. 22, 2019

Another 14 songs come from Miller’s earlier years, when his accompanists included Boz Scaggs; only seven represent the more than three decades that followed the peak years. The alternate and live versions embrace all the aforementioned numbers as well as such other well-known songs as “Space Cowboy,” “Quicksilver Girl” and “Living in the U.S.A.”

Related: Our 2019 review of the Steve Miller Band live at the Met Museum in NYC

Listen to an alternate take of “Space Cowboy”

Like the original hits, all of these versions will remind you just how good Miller was at combining sparkling productions, deft lyrics, tasty guitar flourishes and catchy hooks. But the album’s less-commercial and less-familiar material is equally interesting and may prove revelatory to those who know Miller solely or primarily from the hits. They demonstrate that the blues was more than just a spice added to his rock—it was his passion and a genre he was well equipped to represent.

This passion dates from his childhood, when his father’s friends included electric-guitar legend Les Paul, who was Miller’s godfather, and blues giant T-Bone Walker. (Welcome to the Vault includes a 1951 recording made by Walker at Miller’s home, when the future rocker was about eight; also here is a duet by Paul and Miller on Jimmy Reed’s “I Wanna Be Loved.”)

Related: Our interview with Steve Miller

This box opens with a potent, nearly 11-minute live 1969 reading of Little Walter’s “Blues with a Feeling” and includes such other blues excursions as Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” and Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble.” After listening to this material, you won’t be surprised to learn that Miller recalls wanting in his early days to have “[Paul] Butterfield’s gig” and to “jam with Muddy Waters.” He has always had one foot in rock, but the other has been in blues from day one. 

Listen to the live version of “Crossroads” from the box

This box’s DVD is less notable than its CDs, simply because most of it was not recorded with today’s technology. An 11-song 1973 New York concert that aired on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert leads off the program, which also features two tracks each from a gig with Les Paul, the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival and the Fillmore West. Other contents include a track with blues singer and harmonica player James Cotton; a reading of “Abracadabra” from a Michigan concert; and, from a 2011 appearance on PBS’s Austin City Limits, “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Living in the U.S.A.”

Related: This collection is included in our 2019 box set gift guide

The sound throughout most of the DVD is just so-so, and you can say the same about the quality of the picture, which is widescreen only on the two tracks from Austin, which are the only ones you’ll likely want to view more than once. In fact, if you’ve seen the excellent Austin City Limits show, you might well wonder why Miller didn’t opt to include all of that concert along with just a sample of the Kirshner one, rather than the other way around.

Oh, well, maybe next time: Fricke’s essay mentions that Welcome to the Vault is only “the first volume in a long-term plan of archival projects.” 

Listen to an alternate version of “Jet Airliner”

Jeff Burger

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