Doobie Brothers – The Warner Bros. Years (box set review)

The Doobie Brothers – The Warner Brothers Years: 1971-1983 (Warner) review

All nine studio albums gathered together in one place

You’d be hard pressed to name another band that changed more stylistically, yet remained successful, than the Doobie Brothers. Over the course of twelve years, the group morphed from an acoustic-based folk rock band, to blending elements of hard rock and jazz, to finally becoming a full-blown, blue-eyed soul outfit. All of this transformation can be heard on this new box set, The Warner Brothers Years.

The band began with one of the least auspicious debuts in history. From its generic album cover, to the easy-going, acoustic-folk music contained within, The Doobie Brothers first album gives little evidence that they would eventually be one of the biggest bands in the world. The standout is “Nobody,” made even better when they redid it on their 2010 album World Gone Crazy. Other highlights include the slinky blues of “Slippery St. Paul,” and loping “Greenwood Creek.”

Their next record, Toulouse Street, was a huge leap forward musically. Leading off with their signature “Listen to the Music,” which focused their sound and added a rock edge, while “Rockin’ Down the Highway” was the first song to be propelled by Tom Johnston’s chugging rhythm guitar. “Toulouse Street” was Pat Simmons first great song, a moody acoustic piece, while ”Cotton Mouth” featured horns and had a funky rhythm, something they would explore much more intensely on future releases.

By The Captain and Me, the band had really come into their own. The album is one of their finest, starting with the jangling “Natural Thing.” “Long Train Runnin'” is the band’s greatest moment – powered by an insistent guitar, and augmented by acoustics, a pounding bass and bongos, it ranks as one of the finest songs in all of rock. “China Grove” was equally grand, with it’s echoed guitar, and lyrics about a town in Texas. The band seems completely comfortable in their skin – being able to shift from rockers like “Without You,” to the moody of soul of “Dark-Eyed Cajun Woman,” which steals the arrangement from B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone,” complete with the strings and extended solo at the end. “Clear as the Driven Snow” is an impressive Simmons track which changes tempo, beginning soft, and ending as a hard rocker. Simmons’ “South City Midnight Lady” ranks as one of his finest compositions, while “Evil Woman” sounds like something Black Sabbath should’ve done. “Ukiah” shows the band stretching out, adding keyboards to their palette.

What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits featured the addition of the legendary Memphis Horns, yet their inclusion never seems to gel – especially on “Eyes of Silver,” where the horns seem to just get in the way. The record is surprisingly acoustic-based, the centerpiece being the fantastic, fiddle-dominated “Black Water.” “You Just Can’t Stop It” is another example of the band exploring R&B – here the horns really cook. Simmons really comes into his own as a songwriter on this record. Not just “Black Water,” but also on the gentle “Tell Me What You Want,” and the Santana-esque “Daughters of the Sea.” Johnston turns in a soulful vocal on the ethereal “Another Park, Another Sunday.”

Stampede is another fine album. Only the Motown cover, “Take Me in Your Arms,” would be considered a hit, yet the entire record is excellent, from top to bottom. It opens with “Sweet Maxine,” which begins with a honky tonk piano, before morphing into a funky rocker – it’s one of the band’s lost treasures. “Neal’s Fandango” features a nice pedal steel solo, while “I Cheat the Hangman” starts out as a moody piece before changing keys and shifting into a bombastic closing, complete with strings and a trumpet solo. The album ends with the rocker “Double Dealin’ Four Flusher,” which features a jazz break near the end.

Takin’ it To the Streets was a transitional record for the band. Leader Johnston was having health issues due to constant touring and had to step away from the group (he only sings lead on one track, “Turn it Loose”). His replacement was former Steely Dan backup vocalist, Michael McDonald – and his impact is immediately felt on the R&B-infused title track. His soulful vocals and keyboards dominate much of the record, giving it a softer edge. The rest of the band stretches as well – Simmons’ turns in a couple of Caribbean-flavored tracks in “8th Avenue Shuffle,” and “Rio,” which sound miles away from the signature Doobie sound, while bassist Tiran Porter sings lead on the excellent “For Someone Special,” a tribute to the missing Johnston.

On Living on the Fault Line, the band seems to lose steam a little. The only Doobies album to not contain a hit single, the record has a very mellow feel throughout. Absent are both the straight-ahead rockers, and country flavors that made previous efforts so enjoyably diverse. In its place, the band is all-in on the blue-eyed soul this time around. Simmons shows that he could go toe to toe with McDonald on the soulful, shoulda-been-a-hit “Echoes of Love.” The band tackles another Motown song in “Little Darling (I Need You),” originally done by Marvin Gaye. “You Belong to Me” was a brooding piece co-written by Carly Simon. “Livin’ on the Fault Line” was jazz fusion, lacking direction. What this album needed is a good rocker to break things up.

Minute By Minute is where the Doobie Brothers strike a perfect balance between the hit-making, soulful rock, dominated by Michael McDonald, and the rock and folk influences of Pat Simmons. “Here to Love You” opens the album, and immediately it grooves in a way that nothing on their previous record did. Co-written with Kenny Loggins, “What a Fool Believes” was McDonald’s finest Doobies’ moment. The interplay between all the instruments is a thing of beauty, with the single garnering several Grammys. The title track was another highlight, fueled by McDonald’s Rhodes piano, reaching new heights in soulfulness. Simmons balances things out nicely with tracks like the buoyant “Dependin’ On You,” the cascading rocker “Don’t Stop to Watch the Wheels,” the country picker instrumental “Steamer Lane Breakdown,” and the acoustic-based “Sweet Feelin'” (which features guest vocals from Nicolette Larson).

One Step Closer found the band yet again in transition – losing guitar ace Jeff Skunk Baxter and original drummer John Hartman. Much of the album comes off as more Smooth Jazz than rock (especially on the instrumental “South Bay Strut”). Once again, the entire LP is dominated by the R&B leanings of McDonald, but most of the tracks come off as too polished, lacking punch. Recent addition Cornelius Bumpus turns in an excellent lead vocal on the title track. The band scored a final hit with “Real Love,” but there’s a sameness to much of the record. There are some decent moments here, but overall it’s professional over memorable.

Farewell Tour documents just that, the final shows of the original run of the band (they would reunite in 1989). Originally issued as a double album, the performances are decent, but often too slick, especially on the background vocals. In fact, a latter-day, soulful retooling of “Listen to the Music” is just plain terrible – you barely recognize the song. The album does redeem near the end, as original vocalist Johnston joins the band for spirited run throughs of both “Long Train” and “China Grove.”

For most fans, The Best of the Doobies will suffice for your collection. But, if you’d like to dig a little deeper, there is plenty of great tracks to make this a great buy. The real question is “is there enough good album cuts to warrant buying this set?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” —Tony Peters