Thirty-seven years ago, two San Francisco Bay area rival bands joined forces, and blended their influences of big band jazz with 50’s rock ‘n roll and doo-wop. The result was Huey Lewis and the News, who would go on to carve their definitive sound into 1980’s pop culture, and into our hearts. Wednesday night’s show on the Jazzfest’s Main Stage at Confederation Park brought us back in time to an era of big hair, shoulder pads, MTV, and great dance music.
The boys went straight to work to deliver a string of their instantly recognizable hits, which included, “Heart Of Rock & Roll”, “If This Is It”, “I Want A New Drug”, and “Small World”. The park was filled to near capacity with people of all ages, and a surprisingly large amount of new fans, some of who had never seen the band before.
“We’re going to a musical retreat…a spot we call the “Rhythm Ranch”!”, a song Lewis referred to from their 8th studio album, “Plan B” (2001). I loved its rock/shuffle beat, which featured some great honky tonk piano by Sean Hopper, and the first of many outstanding guitar solos by Stef Burns. The band’s essential 4-piece horn section added their signature big-band prominence to all the material. They were long-time musicians, Johnny Colla (sax/guitar/vocals), Chris Barnes (trumpet), Johnnie Bamont (baritone sax), and Rob Sudduth (tenor sax). The band was rounded out by John Pierce (bass/vocals), and Bill Gibson (drums/percussion/vocals). Huey Lewis himself was in fine form, from his trademark smoky vocals to his proficiency on the harmonica, which he learned to play in his early teens.
There were a few short tangents away from their popular repertoire of songs into some of their recent unrecorded work, which the crowd didn’t seem to mind at all. There was the fast-paced bluesiness of “Your Love Is Killing Me”, embellished with organ accents by Hopper, and “While We’re Young”, which veered into a heavier driving beat and featured another fabulous sax solo by Colla. They resumed with another hit from the past, “Jacob’s Ladder” (1985), complete with its iconic vocal harmonies.
“We’ve only been around for 37 years, and as is our custom, it’s time to do a couple of barbershop numbers.” The band members formed a line along the front of the stage and were introduced one-by-one, before they broke into a couple of bare-bones instrumental doo-wop songs. “Little Bitty Pretty One”, and “It’s Alright”, spawned some audience participation and highlighted the band’s vocal ability.
“Alright, let’s go “Back In Time”!”, and the band broke into the tune that was written for and featured in the 1985 film, Back To The Future. The excited surge of cheering carried on with “But It’s Alright”, which included some enthusiastic call-and-answer banter with the audience. Almost everyone in the park was now on their feet, while Lewis reciprocated by moving constantly from one side of the stage to the other, as he sang and made eye contact with the crowd.
The generous encore portion of the night included another string of their hits. “Thirty-seven years ago, who knew we’d be playing this song every damn night of our lives!”. That song, of course, was their monster hit, “The Power Of Love”(1985), and the crowd went wild as they chanted the song’s chorus. This was followed by my personal fave, their first top-ten hit, “Do You Believe In Love” (1982), and finally, “Workin’ For A Livin’” (1982), which featured more of Lewis’ harmonica skills and 3-part vocal harmonies with Colla and Burns. A portion of the audience broke into “Happy Birthday”, in celebration of Lewis’ upcoming 65th birthday on July 5th. Aside from their many hits and great commercial success, Huey Lewis and the News remain a definite “must-see” band. Their live performances continue to deliver the goods, showcasing the band members’ diverse talents, and generating a spirited connection with the audience.