Nostalgia is a funny thing. There are wisps of embarrassment nestled in the pride of one’s history. The person you are today may not be the person you were then, when you liked a television show, a style of clothing, or a band, and it may surprise people to know you were someone who liked something.
But The Steve Miller Band was a guilty pleasure tucked away in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Amid all the progressive music I consumed, there was a safe haven for its albums in my collection. In hindsight I can now appreciate the exceptional craft of his songwriting, but back then what he created seemed so simple and comfortable that it was hard not to like. They were one of the least dislikable bands of my time, meaning that even non-fans weren’t real detractors, and that said something about him.
What could not have been clear then was how durable the songs would remain, how the tunes were so solid as to withstand the effect of time on style and substance. There was a hippie peacefulness about them, too, not a whiff of darkness in the biggest of the songs. Try finding that today.
For some reason, it took nearly four decades after I first heard Steve Miller to see him. He wasn’t on a particular bucket list. He wasn’t anything necessarily urgent to take in. But like all artists of that era, and as a fan from that era, we know there aren’t an infinite number of opportunities ahead to connect. I didn’t want to never have seen an artist I have spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours hearing.
His concert Saturday night in nearby Coquitlam was in a casino concert hall, with a high ticket price (the most I’ve paid in recent memory for a show), and an adoring, packed house. There is something terribly smart about these events: they start pretty much on time, they don’t make you endure an opening act, they get to the point of the night succinctly, and they don’t overstay their welcome. You’re out of there around 10. The night is ahead, or you can get to sleep at a reasonable hour. I take in enough of the club shows with two substandard opening acts and an 11 p.m. headliner to appreciate the occasional respect for the audience.
If we want to see where there is real money in the music business, it is in the payback these artists of the last generation receive from the casinos of the world. They may have been worked over with bad record deals and shabby tours decades earlier, but they can make up for some of it now on this sweet circuit that expects only that they are faithful to the memories. If you’re in that select cohort of about 250 of these artists, you can make these the marquee events on regional tours.
Miller, at 70, still has that signature voice, a blend of Texas and California by way of Chicago, and he can reel off such a repertoire: Jungle Love, Swingtown and Abracadra in the first 15 minutes alone, without making anyone feel like the best is done. He remains an adept if not showy guitarist, and if he isn’t quite gregarious onstage, he is at least generous with a setlist: Rock N’ Me, Jet Airliner, The Joker, Take the Money and Run, and of course, Fly Like An Eagle, along with a smart, short acoustic set in the middle of what was otherwise a nice cruise-control rock show. His only musical hazard is in taking people way, way back to the 1960s; what is clear is that his audience caught him a few years later.
I suspect this was about 95 per cent of the show he had 35 years ago. There is such an ease and economy in his performance that has obviously permitted him to preserve the chord-by-chord concert over the years. What he created then he can do now. Miller is, like all smart artists, surrounded by good players, and I came away thinking they were committed to the songs, even after all these performances. The audience gets at least what it expects, a return for a couple of hours to a less complicated time in which music seemed more enthusiastic and even a Steve Miller song could feel like it was bending a rule.
It is worth remembering that Miller had trouble getting The Joker played on AM radio because of its reference to marijuana, that he had to create a different version of Jet Airliner to remove the s-word, that Fly Like An Eagle was considered politically daring, or that for all of his success, he has never had a Number One album in America (although he has had two in Canada).
It is also worth remembering, and celebrating, what one liked in early adulthood. Nostalgia has a real place in life.