Back in Time

In the early 1990s, the Guess Who played a summer festival in a town where I was working, and I was supposed to introduce them from the stage. So when somebody from the festival took me backstage toward a balding man with glasses who was busily working over a clipboard, I figured it was the road manager, who would give me my instructions. Turns out it was bassist Jim Kale, the last remaining original member of the band–who was also apparently the road manager. Such is life on the road, 20 years after your last significant hit.

There are lots of groups soldiering on like this, usually playing outdoor shows in the summertime, keeping their names alive and making what they can as working musicians–but you need to understand what you’re getting when you buy your ticket. For example, a group calling itself the Drifters is still touring, but its current members are several generations removed from the original lineup. They’re going to sing “Up on the Roof” and “Under the Boardwalk,” but they’re not going to sound much like you remember ’em. The early-90s Guess Who met this issue head on, with somebody (Kale?) making speeches from the stage to the effect that the Guess Who isn’t about one voice, it’s about the songs. (I am not sure anybody was much persuaded by this, even though they mentioned it several times.)

In the end, however, the group’s makeup isn’t all that big an issue. Shows like these are often found at county fairs or summer festivals, so you paid maybe $6 or $8 to get in, you’re outside on a beautiful night, you’ve had a corn dog and maybe a beer or two, and you’ve already gotten your money’s worth just walking around all afternoon. Anything you get from the group is a bonus. What’s rare is to pay maybe $6 or $8 to get in, be outside on a beautiful night, have a corn dog and maybe a beer or two–and get to listen to a group that’s still in its original incarnation, and that sounds just as good as ever. Which is what happened to me and The Mrs. and our pal Shark Friday night when we caught Huey Lewis and the News at the Dubuque County Fair.

Huey Lewis and the News still features four of its original six members–Lewis, guitarist/saxophone player Johnny Colla, drummer Bill Gibson, and keyboard player Sean Hopper. Friday night, it was actually five of six, as original guitarist Chris Hayes filled in for Stef Burns. (Original bassist Mario Cipollina left in 1995.) They still sound as tight and polished as ever, and they seemed to be having as much fun now as they did the last time The Mrs. and I saw them, one week shy of 20 years ago. Highlights: “The Power of Love,” “Heart and Soul,” and “Doing It All for My Baby.” Surprises: “Back in Time,” the other song from Back to the Future, and both “Alright” songs, the acapella one done originally by the Impressions, and the one from Four Chords and Several Years Ago, done originally by J.J. Jackson. Omission: “Stuck With You,” their biggest hit, and “Jacob’s Ladder,” which also went to Number One.

Shark says that Huey Lewis and the News were the right band at the right time, and he’s correct. At a moment when the Top 40 was populated with wimpy AC and country crossovers and MTV-driven groups who looked better than they sounded, the News came along with good songs, great hooks, and a frontman who was plenty videogenic himself. Although they’d had a couple of hits in 1982, they broke huge in late 1983 with Sports, which spawned five hit singles over the next year. Of all the artists who had their first hit singles at about the same time, only Billy Idol, Culture Club, and Def Leppard had similar success. Only Def Leppard has shown similar staying power with mostly the same lineup.

It’s not that hard for a band to celebrate its 25th anniversary anymore. It’s rare for a band to last that long mostly intact. And it’s great to be a fan who gets to enjoy the ride again after all those years.

2 thoughts on “Back in Time

  1. Anonymous

    We saw Huey and the News a couple of years ago at a winery here in the Bay Area. It felt a little odd being at a “rock concert” at a winery surrounded by well-heeled, chardonnay-sipping 40-somethings, but I have to tell you, it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. The News still work hard, and Huey still knows how to bring it, even well into his 50s. – Dave P

  2. Pingback: Rock Stars and Supermodels – The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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