I do like Huey Lewis and the News. Their earlier work was a little too New Wave for my taste, but after seeing them play at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday night, I think they’ve really come into their own, commercially and artistically. After more than thirty years of activity, Huey still knows how to get a crowd going; an impressive feat, considering that the median age of the audience was approximately fifty. He and the News opened with “Respect Yourself,” a Staple Singers cover from their recent album Soulsville and a showcase for his two new back-up singers. Both women were extremely capable, harmonizing Huey’s powerful bark without drawing too much attention from him. Next up was “Small World,” which featured excellent solos from saxophone player Johnny Colla and obvious Van Halen fan James Herath. This was the first song in which the entire crowd stood up to dance, creating a massive wave of Hawaiian shirts and silver pompadours.
They continued dancing all the way through “Jacob’s Ladder,” a hit from the album Fore!, their most accomplished album. The song ventured into 80’s power ballad territory and featured Huey’s poorest performance of the night, which he gave on the harmonica. Given the fact that Thin Lizzy once let Huey play harmonica on their Live and Dangerous album, I was underwhelmed by his choppy, incongruous solo and was glad to see him put the instrument away for the next song. I didn’t expect the whole band to follow suit, however, and join Huey in an a cappella do wop number. As interesting as this was, it took some of the energy away from the concert. Huey and the News got their groove back immediately with their 1983 hit “Heart and Soul,” producing a crisp clear sound and a sheen of consummate professionalism that really gave the song a big boost. The band maintained the energy for the next few songs, but ended the concert about twenty minutes early due to Huey’s sudden heart palpitations. During the extended break between acts, I tried to get a table at Dorsia despite calling at 8:30 and not having a reservation, but the maitre’d simply laughed at me through the speaker. I decided to murder him later. And so end the American Psycho references.
Joe Cocker came on with an even bigger back up band than Huey Lewis, featuring two back-up singers, a saxophonist, a piano player, and a Hammond organist. Cocker’s energy was as high as ever; his hands twitched wildly and his aged voice was still powerful enough to rock the Bowl in half. He started the show with “There Goes My Baby,” the first of many covers that night, which featured a penetrating piano solo and back-up vocal work rivaling any I have ever heard. Though the individual pieces of the News displayed more talent, Cocker’s band came together as an ensemble tighter and more vigorously. Old Joe then performed “When the Night Comes,” “Lonely Avenue” and “Up Where We Belong,” a duet with his supporting singer that caused many a lighter (including my own) to wave through the cool night air. He ended the series of melancholy tunes with “You Are So Beautiful” and turned the concert up to eleven with “Hard Knocks.”
But the next song, a cover of The Beatles “Come Together,” was the highlight of the night, featuring an incinerating guitar solo and vocals from Cocker that put his performance of the song in Across the Universe to shame. He followed “Come Together” with another Beatles hit, “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Cocker’s rendition was eleven minutes longer than the original, due in part to its gospel reformatting, making the song sexier and more powerful than Ringo’s weak voice ever could have. Cocker finished the show with “Cry me a River,” allowing each of his band members a solo, including both key players. The Hammond organist, in particular, gave a stunning performance that would have made the late Jon Lord proud. Unfortunately, this show was the last leg of the Lewis/Cocker tour, but both acts said they would be back soon. In the meantime, don’t forget: it’s hip to be square.