(October 5, 2019). The California band Toto, featuring co-founders Steve Porcaro, Steve Lukather and longtime member Joseph Williams, were well known for their versatility in musical styles during their 1978-88 heyday – long before the term “yacht rock” came to define them and other late-‘70s/early-‘80s bands that were deemed too soft for other qualifiers.
On Friday night at the historic Chicago Theatre – or “our church” as Porcaro referred to it – the band’s versatility was on full display in front of a crowd of 3,000-plus fans who likely came to “yacht-rock” it out, but got much more.
Toto, who is in the middle of a stretched-out 40th-anniversary celebration (it’s actually been 42 years now) and whose touring band consists of Porcaro, Lukather and Williams plus five very talented supporting musicians, bore its versatile soul Friday night with a blend of musical styles that only they and few others could pull off with any amount of authenticity.
With a set list of 21 songs they played for over two hours here in the Chi, the band segued from pop to soul, from jazz to funk, and from hard rock to prog rock with the ease of a group that’s been doing it for 40-plus years, even though at least one of the touring band members – 27-year-old keyboardist Dominique “Xavier” Taplin – wasn’t even born when Toto had its last top-40 hit (“Pamela”) in 1988.
Taplin’s talents – and his youth – were pointed out during Steve Lukather’s band introductions late in the show, as he noted that the gifted young musician had only rehearsed Toto’s music for two hours when he first joined the band in 2018 – and nailed it, which, as Lukather put it, isn’t so easy to do.
Indeed Taplin did nail it, particularly during a six-minute piano solo about two-thirds into the show where he showed off his skills on a Nord keyboard by interpolating songs like “Everything Must Change,” the classic ‘70s ballad written by the late Benard Ighner and made famous by George Benson in 1977; and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Love’s Holiday” from their classic 1977 LP All ‘n All.
Perhaps it was no accident that Taplin gave a nod to two 1977 R&B classics in his solo given that was the year it all officially began for Toto. After all, Lukather, Porcaro and company are proven students of music and are well aware of its history – and theirs.
The lesson in Toto’s part in music history began Friday night with a newer cut, 2018’s non-album single “Devil’s Tower,” a heavy rocker that featured a still very capable Williams on lead vocals. While the song was likely unfamiliar to most in the audience, it got the crowd revved up nonetheless.
That was followed by the one that got it all started for the group – their first top-40 hit “Hold The Line,” from the self-titled 1978 debut album. The upbeat pop smash – their third-biggest chart-wise – had people on their feet and dancing as the band performed it.
And just like that, only two songs in, Toto had already covered its 40-year span with songs from 1978 and 2018, although in reverse order. But there was much more left to do and, as Lukather pointed out while the night progressed, the band likes to perform at least one tune from each of their studio albums – whether they were hits or not.
For instance, there was “English Eyes” from their third album, 1981’s Turn Back. That album didn’t sell well and it generated no hit singles in America.
But Toto brought “English Eyes” to life Friday with an arrangement that highlighted the complex tune’s faux ending and tempo changes in the middle.
On another complex rocker – the edgy “Jake To The Bone,” from 1992’s Kingdom of Desire – Toto did the song justice by highlighting the instrumental track’s best traits and upholding its jazz-like, improvisational feel. And once again during a spotlight moment, young keyboardist Taplin proved that when the focus is on him, he effortlessly rises to the occasion.
On “Georgy Porgy,” a top-20 Soul chart hit from their first album Toto, guitarist Lukather provided the lead vocals – just as he had on the original.
On Friday, the song had a more relaxed, jazzier feel than the funkier 1979 hit, on which soul singer Cheryl Lynn (whose first album Toto members produced or played instruments on) sang the chorus. Lynn’s part was replaced Friday by touring bassist Shem von Schroeck and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ham, who also embellished this version with his flute.
On “Human Nature,” one of many Michael Jackson tunes that could easily be classified as yacht rock, Steve Porcaro talked about how the song came to be.
It was in 1982 just as the band was finishing up the Toto IV album and Porcaro had been inspired by a bullying incident involving his then-young daughter Heather (an incident he likened more to puppy love at the hands of a young boy than bullying, but found the concept hard to explain to his little girl at the time).
A newly inspired Porcaro wrote “Human Nature” with lyricist John Bettis and it wound up on the biggest-selling album of all time (based on worldwide sales), though, surprisingly, there was no mention of either Thriller or Michael Jackson during Porcaro’s introduction of the tune (but is it really a “cover” of someone else’s hit if you’re the one who wrote it?).
Williams did the lead vocals on “Human Nature” Friday night.
Two other of the show’s highlights were the very progressive-rock sounding theme from “Dune” (from 1984) and the band’s cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” from the Beatles’ White Album, and which Toto included on its 2002 album of covers, Through the Looking Glass.
For the latter, Lukather introduced the tune by referring to Harrison as the guitarist who inspired him the most. After a very convincing electric guitar solo, the audience – whose smartphones had illuminated the air with waving flashlights during the classic rock ballad – showered Lukather with chants of “Luke! Luke!.”
But the two Toto biggies – both from their 1982 Toto IV album – are what have been buttering the band’s bread for the past 37 years and are likely what people anticipated the most.
For the No. 2 pop classic “Rosanna,” the band stayed true to the original’s arrangement (and even included the piano/sax-driven finish from the longer album version), which the crowd of course loved.
Near the end of the show and prior to introducing “Africa,” the penultimate song performed that night and the band’s only No. 1 hit, Lukather smugly asked the audience “are you ready for THAT song?”
Then, in the night’s best example of overindulgence, what was originally a five-minute soft-pop hit was transformed into a 12-minute marathon jam. The song – already known for its strong percussion – was embellished by a rhythm jam session featuring longtime percussionist Lenny Castro and relatively new touring drummer Shannon Forrest.
The two – Castro and Forrest – dueled alone on stage for what seemed like four straight minutes (and it might have been that long), before the other band members returned to finish the tune and close out the night with an encore performance of the synthy, prog-rockish “Home of the Brave,” from their 1988 album, The Seventh One.
“Brave” rounded out the setlist and seemingly fulfilled the band’s intention of performing at least one song from each of their studio albums (by my tally, the lone one not accounted for was the 2015 set, Toto XIV).
All in all, I’d say that’s a pretty good showing for a band that’s been rocking it out for 42 years and counting…
…even if it is only their 40th trip around the sun.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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Toto’s set list at the Chicago Theatre on October 4, 2019:
- Devil’s Tower
- Hold the Line
- Lovers in the Night
- I Will Remember
- English Eyes
- Jake to the Bone
- Georgy Porgy
- Human Nature (Michael Jackson)
- I’ll Be Over You
- No Love
- Stop Loving You
- Piano solo – including “Everything Must Change” (George Benson); “Love’s Holiday” (Earth, Wind & Fire)
- Girl Goodbye
- Dune (Desert Theme)
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps
- Make Believe
- Encore: Home Of The Brave
Missing hits: “I’ll Supply the Love,” “99,” “Pamela”