By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Westport, CT – Four decades after forming the band in northern California, Tommy Johnston was still rocking as hard as ever. And sidekick Pat Simmons was right beside him, strumming his axe and launching himself through the air. As Johnston put it, they played “a little old stuff, a little new stuff and some in-between stuff” and had the crowd completely mobilized.
The Doobie Brothers rocked the Levitt Pavilion Thursday night as the star attraction of the organizing body’s Summer Gala, the most important annual fundraiser the Performing Arts group organizes, which helps fund the cost of offering over 50 free performances at the space each summer season. The evening began with a 7 p.m. reception, held under a large white tent on Jesup Green, for top supporters, donors and dignitaries, sponsored by Honda of Westport. The concert followed at 9 p.m., underwritten by Poland Spring, which provides major support for the entire year of programming.
The opening song was the classic “Jesus Is Just Alright (With Me)” and, at first, it seemed as if the crowd would be polite and sedate and remain seated in the many rows of white molded chairs that filled the pavilion field. But as the band launched into “Rockin’ Down the Highway”, audience members leapt to their feet and rushed the stagefront to begin shimmying and dancing. And as the Doobies fired up “Rock Me a Little While”, the group of dancers grew until the whole pit area was packed solid and sweat ran off the brows of concertgoers as they writhed in the humid night.
It was drummer John Hartman and lead vocalist/guitarist Johnston that planted the Doobie seed, forming a power trio called Pud, with bassist Greg Murphy, in 1969. They then teamed up with bass player Dave Shogren and guitarist Simmons, adopting the name Doobie Brothers in 1971. The origin of the name is attributed to a housemate, Keith Rosen, who noted the guys’ fondness for doobies (marijuana cigarettes). The group built a following in Northern California in and around San Jose, and with the Hells Angels. A first, self-titled album failed to make record charts but a second, in 1972, called “Toulouse Street”, gave life to “Listen to the Music” and “Jesus Is Just Alright”, which propelled the band into the spotlight.
Michael Hossack took over for Hartman on drums, Shogren was replaced by Tiran Porter and Bill Payne came in on keyboards. Their sound evolved into a blend of R&B, country, bluegrass, hard rock, roadhouse boogie, funk and rock & roll, which found its way into follow-up anthems “China Grove” and “Long Train Runnin’”, on their 1973 album “The Captain and Me”, and “Without You” on 1974’s “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.”
As Keith Knudsen replaced Hossack and Jeff Baxter joined as third lead guitarist, the Doobies-defining “Black Water” rolled off the band’s assembly line, forever embedding the line “I’d like to hear some funky Dixieland, pretty mama come and take me by the hand” into fans’ minds and driving multi-platinum sales for “Vices”.
In 1975, touring was taking a toll on the band and Michael McDonald was recruited from retired Steely Dan to step in for an ailing Johnston. McDonald’s voice became the Doobie’s new signature sound as evidenced on 1976’s “Takin’ It to the Streets” and 1978’s “What a Fool Believes”, written with Kenny Loggins and earning a grammy for Record of the Year.
The Doobies ultimately disbanded in 1981, but reformed in 1989 with a mix of old and new recruits, under the leadership of Johnston, Simmons and Hossack.
At the pre-concert reception, attended by some 150 people, which included Pavilion matriarch Mimi Levitt, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, Second Selectman Shelly Kassen and a Who’s Who of area glitterati, recollections about the Doobies were rife.
Aryn Quinn, who came up from Manhattan for the show, said, “The first song I ever heard is ‘Black Water’. I remember listening to it on a small sky-blue transistor radio in bed. I was a little kid in the ‘70s and Steely Dan and the Doobies were the first rock bands I heard. The Doobies are musicians and Southern kick-ass rockers. The total package.”
Westporter Anita Parry said, “I’m from Minnesota originally and the Doobies were very big there back then. We all lived on the water so the ‘Black Water’ song was a favorite. They played at the Minnesota State Fair.”
Hyleri Katzenberg, who was surrounded by friends and husband Mark of the Katzenberg Kafe chain, exclaimed, “I’m a total Doobies fan. I’m looking to catch the sweat towel. My 30th high school reunion is this weekend and this is getting me in the vibe – it’s my kickoff to getting back to 18!”
Westporter John Stefani lived in Manila in the late 1970s and would often play a cassette tape of “The Best of the Doobie Brothers.” He said, “I would lay in bed, flipping my basketball against the ceiling, and wouldn’t stop until the entire tape was done.”
Providing an official town perspective, First Selectman Joseloff offered, “The Playhouse and the Pavilion are among the stars of Westport, particularly at nights like this that enable over 50 nights of free entertainment. The weather is cooperative… this is a fun night.”