The Roots’ drummer Questlove once summarized Hall & Oates’ importance with a succinct joke. “I’m gonna list all the duos in the rock era that were more popular than Hall & Oates,” he declared as he helped induct the duo into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After a brief pause, he continued, “Okay, I’m done.”
Hall & Oates provided an early model of the adaptable pop group, a mode that has now become the norm for any hitmakers aspiring to a long career. The duo’s undeniable knack for hooks came paired with the ability to smoothly shift gears as the sound of the mainstream rapidly evolved around them. Friday night (Feb. 19), they revisited their catalog in front of an adoring crowd at Madison Square Garden.
The pair emerged in the early ‘70s as devotees of Philadelphia’s smooth, harmony-heavy R&B scene; later in the decade, they embraced a more guitar-heavy sound. Though disco conquered pop, Hall & Oates mostly ignored it: instead, songs like “Kiss on My List,” “One on One,” and “I Can’t Go for That” featured the new technology — synth hooks and drum machine beats — that aligned with the development of New Wave. This led to their most commercially successful period, from 1981 to 1984, when they reached the pinnacle of the Hot 100 several times.
Pop ubiquity and an emphasis on singles may have tarnished the group’s reputation with critics — Hall told Rolling Stone he was shocked when he received a nomination for the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. “I didn’t think it would happen as long as the people who were in power stayed in power,” he said with surprise in 2013, drawing on the language of outsiders. “I’ve always been sort of on the other side of the fence with the old guard and the powers-that-be… Times move on and things get validated. The whole new generation of people are looking at me and John in a different way.”
None of the fans at Madison Square Garden seemed worried about “the powers-that-be” — these were the listeners who grew up with Hall & Oates’ music and never stopped loving it. As soon the duo hit the stage, the audience responded with enthusiastic but rhythmically-challenged dancing. The performers stoked the crowd’s eagerness with a greatest hits set, playing only singles released between 1973 and 1984. (“Las Vegas Turnaround” may have been the only album cut in the set.) Hall declared at one point, “It’s a love fest here in New York City.”
As the primary vocalist on many of the songs, Hall sang with wobbly enthusiasm, maintaining a loose relationship with the beat and indulging in hoarse, shouty ad-libs. Oates is the softer, more careful singer; at times, his vocals were close to whispers. They sounded best when functioning as a duo — sharing lead on the self-abrading ballad “She’s Gone,” trading pleading guitar licks on an extended intro to “Sara Smile.”
A trademark of Hall & Oates’ records is the lovely production: they sound expensive, with warm harmonies drizzled onto the songs from above. This isn’t easy to simulate live, without the benefits of multi-track recording, but the band reproduced the effect with little trouble. At times, five of the six instrumentalists were helping Oates with the backing vocals. These seemed even more lavish when contrasted with Hall’s lead — he changed his phrasing and barreled through verses, especially on the rock numbers, but Oates’ cohort of harmonizers bathed the songs in a glistening layer of mist.
This effect was especially noticeable during the night’s final song: a Delfonics cover that called back to Hall & Oates’ origins in Philadelphia soul. The opening acts, Mayer Hawthorne and Sharon Jones, both joined the duo onstage; during the chorus, nine people were singing simultaneously. The ensemble asked a direct question, “Didn’t I blow your mind this time?” For the Hall & Oates’ faithful, the answer was surely yes.