The Doobie Brothers still have it…Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, John McFee and yes, Michael McDonald: 50th Anniversary Tour (Review)

(September 18, 2022).  As fans of the legendary Doobie Brothers filled the Chicago Theatre Wednesday evening (September 14), one couldn’t help but notice the three or four security guards dutifully posted at the foot of the stage, keeping watch as those fans—average age estimated to be in their 60s—slowly and deliberately filed into their seats.

“It’s as if this crowd is gonna storm the stage,” said someone in the audience—obviously joking but clearly questioning the need for the guards who themselves didn’t appear to be all that spry.

Doobie Brothers are celebrating 50 years of hits in 2022

Ironically, as it later turned out, several fans would indeed approach the stage during the show and have to be escorted back to their seats.

While they were never a physical threat to the Doobies, those folks wanted to press their luck and get up-close video footage of the legends commemorating their 50th anniversary, this after several pre-show announcements made it clear that the Doobies had prohibited all video devices.  

It was a rule that went largely unenforced, however, except for those few folks bold enough to approach the stage—smart phone cameras in hand—and snap videos within 20 feet and in full visibility of the veteran band.  

Yet, along with the occasional hootin’ and hollerin’, some spontaneous dancing at their seats, dozens of other unapproved smart-phone photos, and what I swore was the smell of a “doobie” wafting through the air at one point, the “stage-rushing” was about as rowdy as this crowd would get.

Their jubilation was warranted, though, as the eight-member band rocked and rolled through nearly all of their biggest hits and then some, beginning with the oft-resurrected “Nobody”—the first single from their 1971 debut album—and finishing with an encore that included their biggest chart hit, 1974’s B-side-turned-A-side “Black Water,” and perhaps their most beloved classic, 1972’s “Listen To The Music.”

Fans danced, clapped and sang along to favorites like “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me),” “Rockin’ Down The Highway,” and “China Grove,” all of which sounded as good Wednesday as they did roughly 50 years ago.

The real marvel, however, was that this venerable band was performing onstage nearly 40 years after their first farewell tour and breakup, and that the lineup included four key members from its most classic period, including founders Patrick Simmons (the group’s only constant member for all 50-plus years) and Tom Johnston, as well as longtime on-and-off-again members John McFee and Michael McDonald.

Ahhh, McDonald, the hirsute tenor whose famously thick dark mane is now a striking bright white, helped bring the band its biggest commercial success with 1979’s “What A Fool Believes” and the title track from that year’s blockbuster album, Minute By Minute.  He rejoined the Doobies in 2019–the year of the group’s actual 50th anniversary (as Johnston affably pointed out between songs). What’s an additional three years between friends when you’ve had a global pandemic to deal with during that time, right?

McDonald, whose 1978-86 era (both with and without his Doobie brethren) could be blamed credited for popularizing the kind of middle-of-the-road pop that would later become unaffectionately known as “yacht rock,” was essential for hit songs like the aforementioned “Fool” and “Minute,” plus other classics like a jazzed-up bluesy version of “It Keeps You Runnin’” (which marked the beginning of his first tenure with the band) plus the always frenetic “Takin’ It To The Streets,” which completed the three-song encore at the end.

Spotify playlist of the Doobie Brothers 25-song set list

McDonald also provided lead vocals on his co-penned “You Belong To Me” (originally included on the Doobies’ 1977 LP Livin’ On The Fault Line but popularized by co-writer Carly Simon a year later) and 1980’s “Real Love,” the band’s last top-five hit in which McDonald sang about a love interest’s inability to settle down (it’s not one of the band’s most-beloved songs but it certainly ranks among their best written ones).

Now that I think of it, all of McDonald’s contributions seemed to deal with the darker side of love and relationships, while Johnston’s and Simmons’ compositions were more optimistic and uplifting tunes about the simple joys of life.  

The concert was a showpiece for all four—Simmons, Johnston, McDonald and McFee—to show off their considerable, well-honed musical talents.  And no song better exemplified the group’s stellar guitar work than “Clear As The Driven Snow” (from 1973’s The Captain and Me), in which Simmons and McFee traded some wicked guitar licks before Johnston joined in for an electric guitar solo capper.

Three Doobies (from left): Patrick Simmons, John McFee and Tom Johnston perform “Clear As The Driven Snow”

Nearly all, if not all, the band’s tunes were played in their original keys with all three main vocalists—Johnston, Simmons and McDonald—holding their own…a task that would prove daunting for most septuagenarians.  That all three leads could still hit the high notes (Simmons and Johnston are 73 and 74, respectively, while McDonald is 70) is nothing short of phenomenal, especially the baritone-speaking McDonald, whose tenor singing voice has always required him to elevate to a higher register.

Perhaps the night’s only grievance was when McDonald, clearly a singer’s singer, improvised a few times too many on normally polished songs like “Minute By Minute” and “What A Fool Believes,” where his lines often lagged (perhaps for a more loose effect) a half-bar behind the music.  Sometimes fans want to hear the hits sung straight like we remember ‘em, so we can at least sing along.

But that was a minor flaw—if it can even be called that—for a show that was satisfying from start to finish (with plenty of singalongs to boot!).

Tom Johnston stayed true to several of the band’s feel-good songs like the aforementioned “Take Me In Your Arms,” “Listen To The Music” and “China Grove,” plus some tunes from their nearly year-old “new” album (Liberté, released October 2021), including the tracks “Easy” and “Don’t Ya Mess With Me.”

Doobies performing “Black Water” at the Chicago Theatre on September 14, 2022

Patrick Simmons equally shined on the upbeat “Depending On You,” plus the plaintive first No. 1 smash “Black Water” (whose famous coda the crowd clearly anticipated as they sang along to it in perfect unison), and the sublime “South City Midnight Lady” (with harmony lead provided by Johnston) also from their 1973 album The Captain and Me (okay, maybe that album is actually their best).

It was during “South City” that I first noticed how hard the stage crew had to work to keep up with Simmons’ and Johnston’s equipment changes.  The two switched out guitars between songs like Diana Ross changes wardrobes during her concerts…each act’s modifications obviously being essential to their shows’ aesthetic.  

Another guitar-swap preceded Simmons’ introduction of his only new contribution to the set, the song “Better Days” (from 2021’s Liberté), which was another feel-good rocker but also a queue for dozens in the audience to take what must have been badly needed bathroom breaks or to refresh those drinks before the band launched into the show’s rollicking finish.

And what a finish it was.

After Johnston introduced what he called a bit of New Orleans music with the bluesy rocker “World Gone Crazy” (title track from their 2010 album), many in the audience stood to their feet, dancing in place while the Doobies showed off their soulful roots.

Next up was McDonald’s very sophisticated “Minute By Minute,” the calming nature of which I was sure would quiet this crowd some.  

To the contrary, even more of the audience stood as the song’s famous church-like organ intro signaled its arrival, and by the time it finished, the crowd was revved up for more of the Doobies’ revival.

“Minute” led to the crashing guitar intro of “Without You,” which segued into the rousing “Jesus Is Just Alright.”  By this time, the entire audience was on its feet for good, reveling in the Doobies’ climactic song set and gearing up their chops for what would prove to be the night’s biggest crowd pleaser: 1973’s “Long Train Runnin’.”

That song’s hooky refrain, “without love, where would you be now,” is as relevant and needed in today’s America as it was nearly a half-century ago.

Doobies perform “Long Train Runnin’” on September 14, 2022, at the Chicago Theatre

But, of course, the night’s encore was capped, predictably, by “Listen To The Music,” a song about the healing power of the very thing we came to hear at this legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band’s 50th-year jubilee.

Or 53 years, if you’re counting.  

Either way, this is a ticket you surely don’t want to miss if the Doobie Brothers are coming to a venue near you (or even one far away)!

The Doobie Brothers (beginning with third from left): Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, Michael McDonald, and John McFee, flanked by touring band members

The Doobie Brothers band:

Patrick Simmons (guitar, lead vocals), Tom Johnston (guitar, lead vocals), Michael McDonald (keyboards, lead vocals), John McFee (multi-Instrumentalist, slide guitar), John Cowan (bass), Mark Quiñones (percussion), Ed Toth (drums), Mark Russo (sax)

Doobie Brothers 25-song setlist (Chicago Theatre, September 14, 2022):

  1. Nobody
  2. Take Me In Your Arms
  3. Here To Love You
  4. Depending on You
  5. Rockin’ Down The Highway
  6. You Belong To Me
  7. Easy
  8. South City Midnight Lady
  9. Clear as the Driven Snow
  10. It Keeps You Runnin’
  11. Another Park Another Sunday
  12. Eyes of Silver
  13. Better Days
  14. Don’t Ya Mess With Me
  15. Real Love
  16. World Gone Crazy
  17. Minute by Minute
  18. Without You 
  19. Jesus Is Just Alright 
  20. What A Fool Believes
  21. Long Train Runnin’
  22. China Grove
  23. Black Water (encore)
  24. Takin’ It To The Streets (encore)
  25. Listen To The Music (encore)

DJRob

DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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