The Doobie Brothers Go "Crazy"
One August night a few weeks ago, as the Doobie Brothers were playing before 18,000 ardent fans in Montana, founding guitarist Pat Simmons looked out into the audience. "I see this guy in dreads; he's probably 18 years old. He's got his fist up in the air and he's shaking his head. And right beside him is a bald guy, probably 65 years old, and he's got his fist in the air and he's shaking his head. It's all the same; we're making a connection," Simmons says. He skips a beat before adding, "They were right in front of the girl who was pulling her blouse off." Long live rock'n'roll, and long live the Doobie Brothers.
For nearly 40 years the Northern California band has been rocking down the highway, selling some 40 million albums worldwide, according to its management, and delivering more than two dozen charting singles, including such classics as "Black Water," "Listen to the Music," "China Grove and "Long Train Runnin'."
And the band-which also includes founding vocalist Tom Johnston and two other longtime members, multi-instrumentalist John McFee and drummer Michael Hossack-is far from done. The Doobies remain a tremendously strong live draw and, now, they're releasing their first album since 2000's "Sibling Rivalry."
"World Gone Crazy" arrives Sept. 28 on HOR Entertainment, a new independent company launched by industry veterans. The set not only features such classic Doobie-style songs as "Nobody" (a remake of a tune that appeared on the group's 1971 self-titled debut) but also sees the band stretching out musically in a new way, such as on the gospel-inflected "A Brighter Day" or the New Orleans brass of the title track.
"It's the best thing we've done musically in forever," Johnston says of the album.
The set was recorded during a three-year period. It was co-produced by the band with Ted Templeman, the producer behind all of the group's classic hits, who was with the band in the beginning. It features guest appearances by Willie Nelson and former Doobie Michael McDonald.
"We'd been talking about some other people and then Ted came in," Simmons says. "We knew that would be a good partnership and just fun for us to return to our roots."
To release "World Gone Crazy," the Doobies turned to HOR Entertainment. Although initially leery of signing with an indie after the band's long career on major labels, longtime Doobies manager Bruce Cohn says, "HOR just surfaced as people who seemed to have genuine interest in bringing the band back into the forefront of their audience and gaining a new audience and seemed to really have the fire."
The HOR deal also includes a live CD/DVD package, as well as a concept album with the band re-creating its hits with special guests.
HOR CEO/president of A&R Larry Lee wanted to sign a legacy group to the label. When he learned from HOR VP of marketing and promotion Bob Divney that Cohn was shopping a new Doobies set, the label got an advance of the album "and listened to it... then listened again," and decided to check out the band in concert.
"So we traveled to Chicago, saw them live and [were] completely blown away," Lee said in an e-mail interview.
Still a staple at classic rock formats, the band is going to radio with new tracks for the first time in more than a decade. The opening salvo is the rollicking "Nobody," which has been serviced to classic rock, mainstream rock and triple A. Plans call for taking up to four singles to various radio formats, including, Cohn says, possibly remixing "Far From Home" for country radio.
However, all involved know the radio game has changed since the band's last top 10 hit, 1989's "The Doctor," and that some reintroduction is in order.
"The challenge before us will be to remind older fans-and educate new ones, of course-about the amazing history this band has and what their music has meant and will continue to mean to our culture," Lee says. "Radio will be an especially important element to the marketing mix of this project."
To that end, the band is visiting radio programmers and even appeared at trade magazine FMQB's triple A conference in Boulder, Colo., in August (and received two standing ovations for its set). The group has also played for Apple's staff.
In concert, the Doobies perform three of the new songs-"Nobody," "Chateau" and "World Gone Crazy"-and are finding the material blends in perfectly with the classics. "I was shocked" by the reception, Johnston says. "In the old days, when we'd start playing new songs, [the audience] would just sit around and stare at you. [Now], they've been very accepting and it's very rewarding."
With the new album come new touring opportunities. In October, the Doobies start their most expansive tour of Europe in a decade, headlining on their own and touring with ZZ Top in a three-week outing booked by ITB.
Even when they haven't had new material to showcase, the Doobies have long kept their loyal concert audience on the strength of their catalog and their tight live show, which is bumper-to-bumper hits. They still play with the verve of a band just starting out, albeit with much better chops.
In booking the band's average of 90 domestic shows per year, Paradigm Talent Agency's Dan Weiner comes up with a blend of solo dates in 2,000- to 4,000-seaters; co-headlining situations, such as this summer's tour with longtime cohort Chicago; and festival gigs that get the band in front of new fans.
"Whenever younger audiences get to see them, they get turned on because they know it's a rock'n'roll show," Weiner says. "That was one of the reasons we've done so much mix and match for the bands they perform with." For example, the Doobies played the Allman Brothers' Wanee Festival this year, alongside such acts as the Black Keys, as well as Louisville, Ky.'s Hullabalou Festival, which also featured Dave Matthews Band and Kenny Chesney. At the end of this record cycle, Cohn says he'd like to see the band be able to fill amphitheaters on its own without having to co-headline.
Johnston hopes songs from the new album get significant airplay, but, if nothing else, he wants it to build enough awareness for the band that he no longer has to answer one specific question: "One of the things that's really bugged me is the crowd goes crazy, [then] you hear after the show, 'You guys are great. When did you get back together?' That drives me nuts. You're out there doing 90 shows a year and they say that. It makes you wonder, 'What do I have to do to make people aware you're out doing this?' "
To be sure, the band has been back together for 17 consecutive years, but it's understandable that its somewhat fractured history could lead to some confusion among its more casual fans.
The group's earliest days are filled with memories of many laughs, but also hard times. "We were [living] on food stamps and brown rice," Cohn says. "I was taking guns and knives from Hell's Angels." His initial prediction for the band was that "they were going to go five years or so and we'd all be broke at the end," he says with a laugh.
The success of the 1972 single "Listen to the Music," on the band's second Warner Bros. album, "Toulouse Street," signaled an end to the struggles. "When we started getting songs on the radio, that changed everything," Johnston says. "Pretty soon we were always closing [shows]. We went from vans to a plane, a 1944 Martin. It's not like we were flying in Gulfstreams. We took the seats out and sat on the floor a lot. We played poker and played music. It was a blast."
And there were some odd stage pairings along the way, including touring with T-Rex, whose lead singer, the late Marc Bolan, Johnston and Simmons both remember fondly as "quite the character," Johnston says. "We were kind of this biker band, all in leather. And Marc was all in lace and a satin suit," Simmons recalls with a laugh. "It didn't take us long to have the satin suits and platform shoes."
The band was an unstoppable force, experiencing massive success at radio and selling out its 200 shows per year. The schedule wreaked havoc on Johnston's health and by 1976, the self-avowed "homebody" had to pull off the road.
McDonald joined the band in the mid-'70s, replacing Johnston, and led the band into a more soulful era-as well as a critically acclaimed one: The Doobies' 1978 album, "Minute by Minute," captured an album of the year Grammy Award nomination, while "What a Fool Believes' won the record of the year award.
"I loved Michael's sensibility. I love his songs. I love his voice and what he brought to everything," says Simmons, the only member to have worked with every incarnation of the band. "For me, personally, it was just an enjoyable experience all around. I know the two styles are different, but in a certain sense, it held some of the same qualities."
Despite its success, the McDonald iteration of the band fell apart and the Doobies called it quits in 1982. Various members played an annual charity concert but it wasn't until 1987, when drummer Keith Knudsen (who died in 2005) wanted to reunite the band for a veterans charity, did it re-form for good.
"Keith called me and asked if we could get them together for a benefit and I told him who to call first; one at a time to get them to say 'yes,' " Cohn says.
The demand for the reunion, which included both Johnston and McDonald, was so great, that instead of one show, the group played 13, most of them for charity. "When they first came out onstage for the Sports Arena show in San Diego, they got a five-minute standing ovation," Cohn says. "The Hollywood Bowl sold out in 20 minutes, and I'm like, 'Do you think no one wants to see you now?' "
After that successful outing (and with McDonald enjoying a strong solo career), the group decided to go forward with Johnston as lead singer again. The Doobies signed with Capitol Records and returned with the successful "Cycles." Another brief hiatus and change of some secondary personnel occurred in the early '90s, but the band-with Simmons, Johnston, McFee and Haddock (who's now on medical leave)-has been touring continuously since 1993.
Neither Simmons nor Johnston sees any end in sight. "I think we play better than we ever did," Johnston says. "I can't recall hardly any nights where I've walked off stage and felt it didn't work."
Through it all, the band has stayed true to its roots without regard for fads or trends. "We weren't a disco band during the disco era; we weren't a punk band during the punk era," Simmons says. "We've always been who we are and I think that's been important to our fans. It's always been important to us."