Onstage at the Horseshoe Casino (about a half hour outside of downtown Chicago), Huey Lewis and the News are rocking, rolling and the crowd is lapping up every note. During their finale, Lewis is standing on top of a speaker blowing his soul into his harmonica with great gusto as the other ten musicians perform every last note faultlessly. They're not larger-than-life in their sound, goliath, stadium-conquering or hushed and hip- they're simply damn good. Writers (including myself) like to throw grandiose adjectives around to make the music we love sound cool. However, what most miss out on is that most in the music industry do everything in their power to be cool when it's something that can't be learned, it's either in your DNA or its not. It's been twenty-five years since Huey Lewis and the News had their last number-one album and single, but that hasn't stopped them from being one of the most consistent and best bands touring today. Judging by the fervent reaction of the crowd in Hammond, they wholeheartedly agree. As the band tore through the final song on their 100-minute set, "Workin' For A Livin'", fans rushed the stage like it was 1985. With the house lights on the band was firing on all cylinders. The horns sounded big and bad, Johnny Colla's rhythm guitar counteracted with Bill Gibson's precise drumming and Huey Lewis well, he performed the hell out of that harmonica not looking a day older than thirty-five. Huey Lewis and the News may not be riding a wave of chart success as of late, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better or more consistent band who currently tours.
Something overlooked in the music industry these days is consistency. All musicians have commercial high points they'll never ascend to ever again. Those that try to maintain that success often look foolish or in the end, it kills them. Despite relatively little new music by Huey Lewis and the News over the last two decades, they've stayed true to their vision, never following trends or trying to appear hip and relevant. They may not be the MTV staple they were back in the 1980's but in many ways, they're as good as they have ever been. They have made a career of first and foremost staying true to their vision and secondly, never embarrassing themselves. In many ways, it's the latter that can be construed as their greatest legacy. They're a tight unit managed by the same manager who stared with them more than three decades back, they often produced their own albums and even directed their own videos because if they're going to look foolish, they might as well do it on their own dime. Their set lists always contain a few surprises and often leave out hits that for other acts would be staples. The Hammond show featured only one track from their 1986 record Fore!, their second most successful album which housed five Top-10 hits. In 1987, they were only the second band to ever achieve this accomplishment (Genesis was the first) and less than a handful of bands have accomplished this since. The only song we were treated to was their ebullient number-one single "Stuck With You". Five Top-10 hits do you know how many acts would simply live off this legacy year-after-year and never even think of going deep? Granted, as a fan of the record, I would have liked to see them show off "Jacob's Ladder" or "I Know What I Like", but I admire them beyond words to never just call it in or
The band took to the stage at 7:40pm on the head and opened with "The Heart of Rock and Roll". Lewis was in a black collared shirt, black rim glasses, jeans and black shoes. He didn't look a day older than thirty-five and when he sung, it was as if the last few decades never happened. Heck, who are we kidding; it was if the Beatles still had not arrived. The band has mined the classic rhythm and blues songs of the late 1950's with such perfection, they practically own the sound. The extended harmonica break towards the end of the song was a digression and a most welcomed one. Despite perfecting the four-minute pop song, the band isn't afraid to flex their musical muscles on the concert stage with new arrangements and updating the sounds of the songs. "Trouble In Paradise" was introduced as the first song the band wrote together back in 1978 with a more omnipresent organ than keyboards (played meticulously throughout the night by Sean Hopper). Despite coming from a time where many recordings sound dated, their songs have stood the test of time and even when a keyboard or synthesizer may have dominated a song, they now deliver it like a rhythm and blues soul revival.
The seventeen song set did cover many of their hits, however, it was the detours that stood out. Few may know it, but in November of 2010, the band released Soulsville, a tribute record to Stax Records they recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis. It's the rare covers record that works on all levels. To their credit, they didn't go the Rod Stewart route cherry picking the biggest and best known cuts from the catalog. They went deeper thus allowing the album to feel fresh and also shining a big bright light onto fourteen songs people may otherwise had never known about. The record plays like a new Huey Lewis and the News record while simultaneously bowing to those who made their career possible. If you haven't heard the record yet, you should seek it out. It's a record that fills many moods from sitting on the porch late at night staring at the moon, to driving with the windows down. For the current show, only "Respect Yourself" was aired. Back in the summer of 2010, the band opened most of their summer tour set with eight songs from the record. That's something few acts at any time would do- open the show with eight songs from a record still not released. These are things one would expect from Bruce Springsteen (whose own cover record was off-center as well covering the songs of Pete Seeger). I guess the point I am trying to get at is that if you think Huey Lewis and the News are purely a nostalgia train to hop on once a year for a ride to the past, you'd be mistaken. As I saw in Hammond, the band meticulously delivers every single song with a great amount of musical precision and fervent soul. If they ever opt to performing a longer show (40-minutes opening, 40-minutes of Soulsville and another 60-minutes) they stand a good chance of winning their audience over with this under-the-radar record. This is the only criticism I really have about the show is that I wish it was longer. With so many hits, cult album cuts and underappreciated songs from the last fifteen years, I often wish the band would play longer for all of these songs to have a chance to be heard.
For the remainder of the show, Huey Lewis and the News opted to deliver a tightly wound set of covers, new songs and hits. When I refer to "new songs" I'm referring to new studio cuts the band has released going back to 1996. "I Ain't Perfect" and "We're Not Here For A Long Time" from their overlooked 2001 album Plan B were delivered with all of the fury and preciseness of a great band. The rhythm and blues elements are at the forefront of the bands deliverance and I'm largely amazed more people haven't written about this record as it houses some unbelievable tunes. A bigger shock was "When The Time Has Come" from their 1996 Time Flies The Best of. The song isn't progressive but full of all the wistfulness one could hope for in a pop song and is a testament to their talents as songwriters. Instead of chasing trends, they created something worthy of inclusion on a "hits" package and capture the musical essence of the band. The core members performed "60 Minute Man" acapella while "Um Um Um Um Um Um Um" had minimal instrumentation. The only cut from Hard At Play performed was "He Don't Know" which found guitarist Stef Burns injecting effortless rhythm and blues guitar through a pop funnel. Originally performed by their now-retired guitarist Chris Hayes, the straightforward solo is an example of how Huey Lewis and the News managed to stay current without sacrificing the sound of the music they loved. You don't have to work with hip producers, or dress a certain way and even compromise your music. Love them or hate them, they always did it their own way.
While the band delivered "If This Is It", "Small World", "I Want a New Drug", "Power of Love" and "Heart and Soul" with steely precision never did it feel as if the band was dialing-in the performance. They sung and played each one as if it was 1985. While there were a flurry of hits not performed, it was hard to complain about any of the 100-minute performance because each minute was as close to perfection as one could hope for. However, it was a minor hit that stood out and etched itself into everyone's memory bank; "Walking on a Thin Line". "Thin Line" was the fifth and final single from Sports and reached only number 18 - the only single between 1983 and 1988 of theirs to not reach the Top-10 on Billboard. However, onstage in Hammond on this particular evening, the song provided an emotional wallop. As Huey Lewis was being dropped off to the venue the driver requested it and the band went above and beyond in a performance that is eliciting goose bumps on my arms as I type this. The song written from the perspective of someone over in Vietnam was largely maligned by critics when released in late 1984, the song has grown over the years and become something of a cult classic. It was the only song from Sports to not make their superb Greatest Hits release in 2006 and it's a song people mention when I discuss the band with them. I once had a large discussion about it at a Megadeth/Slayer concert a few years back with a big and burly metal head who told me that that particular song hit him hard as he had a father who went to Vietnam and it was the first piece of music they bonded over. The intellectual depth of that conversation struck me and made me realize that even when songs are created with the radio in mind; it doesn't mean they're sacrificing something. In Hammond, the core six piece band performed the song alone (without the three piece horn section and the two backing vocalists). Johnny Colla played a mean rhythm guitar while Bill Gibson's drumming went into another realm. Rarely given the props he deserves. Gibson's drumming is every bit as effective and tight as Max Weinberg's but few think of his name when discussing great drummers. The band has never been a flashy one always with its allegiance to the music first and their egos a distant second. The entire performance was as bracing as any of their 1983-1989 performances and I'd dare say that this delivery of "Walking on a Thin Line" was definitive.
Even though the band has only recorded two albums of new material in the last two decades, they're still a driving force on the concert stage. Despite having more Top-40 hits than any other band in the 1980's, the band doesn't rest on their laurels and live off their hits making the tag of a purely nostalgia act difficult to stick. When walking into a Huey Lewis and the News concert, you can never be entirely sure what kind of concert you may experience. Like Bob Dylan, the band performs what they feel like and don't always bow to the best known songs often opting for a new song or a forgotten treasure. A few nights later in Milwaukee they played "Giving It All Up For Love" (written by Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy) for the first time in twenty-five years. What I saw on the concert stage was a living and breathing entity still capable of greatness on stage and on record. Make sure you witness it yourself when they tour this summer with headline gigs and a co-headline tour with Joe Cocker in July.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Huey Lewis and the News: The Kids Are All Right