Gerald Johnson - bass; John King - drums; Steve Miller - lead vocals, guitars, harmonica; Dickie Thompson - keyboards
Few groups that established themselves in the 1960s survived the transition into the 1970s better than the Steve Miller Band. Like many of the San Francisco bands, they were initially a young blues band that developed into one of the pioneers of the psychedelic rock scene, releasing increasingly adventurous albums and becoming a favorite at Fillmores East and West as well as rock clubs throughout America. Following numerous personnel and stylistic changes between 1966 and 1972, Steve Miller finally hit big in 1973 with his eighth album, The Joker, which marked yet another significant change for the group. Gone were the psychedelic explorations and lengthy blues jams of the past, and in their place was a more melodic, smooth rock sound. Past influences, the blues in particular, were still part of the group's flavor, but Miller was now playing more acoustic guitar, and the songs were often paired down to essential elements. This new approach caught the attention of radio and gave Miller his first solid commercial success, due in no small part to the extensive radio play of the title track.
This remarkable Steve Miller Band performance, recorded at San Francisco's Winterland, was a homecoming for the band. They had just returned from an extensive tour, performing before some of their largest audiences to date, as they rode the crest of success of The Joker. The second of two nights headlining a bill that had the Climax Blues Band and ZZ Top as openers, this performance contains superb live performances of most of that album, as well as many vintage classics and a preview of the things to come. The layout of this lengthy performance was divided into three parts: It begins with a ten-song electric set; during the middle of the show, Miller treats the hometown crowd to an intimate acoustic set; this is followed by a high-energy return to electric instrumentation that closes the show.
This first part of the performance features the entire first electric sequence of the concert. Following the introduction, Miller opens the performance with one of his most memorable classics, "Space Cowboy," from his 1969 album, Brave New World. It's a strong opener that hits home with the San Francisco audience, and longtime fans will discover that Miller has updated some of the lyrics here. Next up is the first taste of material from The Joker, with a great cover of "Mary Lou." Possibly because they are playing before hometown fans, the group settles in and begins exploring their blues roots, rather than playing the hits. This begins with the fast-paced shuffle of "Gangster Of Love" before Miller truly flexes his guitar chops on "Blues With A Feelin'," a song he often played in the earliest incarnations of the band. Keyboardist Dickie Thompson gets a chance to wail on the cooking instrumental "The Upper Darby Shuffle," which was a new composition at the time and one that never made an album. A trio of songs from The Joker album follow with "Evil," "Lovin' Cup," and "Sugar Babe." The first is a nice slow blues; "Lovin' Cup," which they dedicate to their friends in the Climax Blues Band (who often perform an arrangement of this song), caps off the bluesy portion of the show; "Sugar Babe" exemplifies the new, more straightforward approach of the group. Free of superfluous embellishments, these songs are based on strong, memorable riffs, and are a clear sign of where the group would be heading.
The next song, new to audiences at the time and still more than two years prior to its release, shows exactly where the band is heading. "Fly Like An Eagle" would eventually become a career-defining moment for Steve Miller. This early, more embryonic version captures Miller and the group at their most adventurous as they explore the song's possibilities for nearly 11 minutes. At this stage, the song is considerably different, and in many ways more satisfying than the familiar synth-heavy take Miller would later record. Here the song recalls the psychedelic music Miller was making in the 1968-69 era, with plenty of electric guitar processed through delay units and a much punchier rhythmic approach that recalls "My Dark Hour." The initial electric portion of the show concludes with a powerful rendition of "Jackson-Kent Blues," one of the outstanding political commentary tracks from the group's 1970 album, Number 5.
As captivating as this initial sequence is, the band is merely getting started. An extended acoustic set, as well as a powerful return to electric form, would follow to close the night.
(Listen to Part 2 for the remainder of this night's performance.)