As we got settled at the Schermerhorn, The Spin voiced our relief that the symphony center’s future appears secure, for the moment. With a substantial number of pop concerts added to the 2013-2014 season, the tone of the place is bound to change a little, but that isn’t really a loss — after all, orchestra concerts were pop music for a long time. If toning down the exclusive atmosphere is part of filling seats, who better to help out than Huey Lewis and the News? Purists may be galled to consider that the world’s best bar band closed out the summer at our state-of-the-art hall, but the strategy already seems to be working: The couple seated next to The Spin reported it was their first time in, and they were already planning a return visit.
We were a little surprised to see pop country duo Striking Matches open the show, until we realized that Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis are an impressive bar band themselves. Both are excellent players, and not afraid to show it off, weaving in and out of each other’s way with more ferocity than grace, Ms. Zimmerman indulging in a particularly pyrotechnic slide solo on “Make a Liar out of Me.” Their harmonies are also phenomenal; these two are an excellent match if ever there was one, and their chemistry doubtlessly helped get two of their tunes into ABC's Nashville. The songs weren’t up our alley, but that’s more a commentary on the market’s requirement that a song be able to boil down to a gift shop T-shirt than a critique of the group’s songwriting abilities.
After a short break, the trademark electronic heartbeat from “The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll” signaled that time had come to catch up on The News. Despite a few key lineup changes — seasoned session bassist John Pierce taking over for Mario Cipollina and his dangling cigarette, and James Harrah currently subbing for lead guitarist Chris Hayes — the band’s core has remained mostly intact since 1978, and the nine-piece looked as comfortable as you can get as they filled the stage. On cue, casually dapper Lewis sauntered into the spotlight with his harmonica, playing the same role he’s held down for 35 years: the easygoing regular Joe who stumbled into the middle of this rock ‘n’ roll thing, and is determined to have a damn good time with it.
The Sports portion of the program went off with only one hitch that caught our attention: “I Want a New Drug” was sped up, which harshed the vibe a little, but did nothing to dim the stellar ensemble playing, which remained tight without being over-wound through the whole evening. As the ever-affable Lewis paused mid-set to “flip the album over,” he reflected wryly on The News’ success and longevity, noting that “We used to be a beer and hot dog band, but now we’re in with the wine and cheese set.”
For some, the glossy, manic production of Fore! lingers like a dark cloud over Lewis’ catalog, but nary a cut from Fore! appeared on the set list. Sunday night’s show was clearly dedicated to the group’s roots in country-funk band Clover, who played bars in San Francisco and pubs in London for a decade before guitar-slinger John McFee left to join The Doobie Brothers. McFee played the reverent pedal steel accompaniment to the cover of Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues” that closes out Sports, and appeared in person to reprise his role on Sunday, to the full approval of the Music City crowd.
A new song, “While We’re Young,” was met with polite enthusiasm. Aside from a few choice cuts — the obligatory and excellent “The Power of Love” and a laid-back take on “Do You Believe in Love” among them — the rest of the evening was dedicated to the soul and blues that were The News’ meat and potatoes way back when. Hammering the point home, the group took time out for a second take on “Bad is Bad,” reverting from the smoothed-out version that appears on Sports to the John Lee Hooker homage that Huey wrote during the Clover days (its line about “All you can eat for $1.99” adjusted for inflation to $5.99, of course).
Mr. Lewis and his News never claimed to be anything other than entertainers, and sticking to what they know has served them well. Just as they should be in any corner bar, all 1,800 or so patrons were singing and clapping along, having a great night out. We moseyed on home, satisfied with our reminder that entertaining is an art in itself.