The Bay Area of Northern California was, through the latter part of the 60’s and into the early 70’s, an encampment of musical ideology that utilized “fusion” in the creative spark. And that applies beyond the common genre of fusion jazz.
The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Country Joe & The Fish, and Big Brother & The Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin, were all vanguards of fusion rock in the counter-culture movement. Rock, blues, jazz, folk, gospel, R&B, far-eastern, latin, and other world-wide elements of music were infused into contemporary music and experimentation was the measure of success.
In 1971, The Doobie Brothers drew all the best elements of this front line together to make a successful sound that was unique in its own right and polished to a winning accessibility. Their initial album went un-noticed in general, other than by the locals who knew them from live shows and from local chapters of The Hells Angels who had formed a particular strong following of the group.
It was 1972’s release of Toulouse Street that jettisoned The Doobie Brothers into the hands of soon-to-be admirers like myself. And based upon that wonderful music and the singles tossed out in conjunction with the release of The Captain And Me, this “second” masterpiece gave us even more of the wonder and awe.
The first noticeable feature of this band was the easy blend of acoustic and electric, not just a counter-balance of one to the other but a total homogenization of the two into a sort of Simon & Garfunkel meets Jefferson Airplane and they had twins and named them The Doobie Brothers. The other in-your-face fact was the songwriting was so crafty and elegant whether it was a driving rocker or a soft folk-jazz song. The band had some top of the mountain talent.
Two drummers playing off of each other, a bassist with pure busy and punchy bass lines in a distinctive tone with a unique picking style, three part harmony vocals that easily separated into tiger-leads, and two lead guitars! And all that before you noticed the Memphis Horns and Little Feat’s Bill Payne rocking the pianos! In the same way which Toulouse Street instantly grabbed you, The Captain And Me forged forward with their sound. This time they added an extra accent on the last syllable, they paid out of work Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter for some canny pedal steel.
Most Doobie Bros fans fall into one of three camps: the fans of the original Tom Johnston led group, the Michael McDonald influenced outgrowth group (often referred to as “Doobie Dan” by the former fans), and those (like myself) who love all things Doobie from inception to jaded. The Doobie Dan moniker stuck with them from Takin’ It To The Streets even though Jeff Baxter had actually joined the group a couple albums earlier and actually began his session playing on a few songs of this album, but it mainly came up after Michael began to write songs and sing leads after Tom left.
Yes, The Doobie Brothers did gravitate more to R&B influences after that, but the unique “sound”, the “it” that made The Doobie Brothers, the Doobie Brothers, that has always been, with or without Tom. You see, if you listen closely to Toulouse Street and this album, and pay particular attention to each song, then go play Takin’ It To The Streets and do the same again, I assure you, you will notice the thread there. The cosmopolitan Bay Area truth that bares open the San Francisco scene musically, the synthesis that fused elemental musics together to become the “voice” of a generation.
The reality of The Captain And Me compared to Toulouse Street, is that Captain was a rush order job based upon the sales of the former. Tom Johnston had to rework some “old” tunes to come up with the final set list. For me, the opening track on each side of the record album, “Natural Thing”, and “Without You” were both the weakest moments on the album along with “Evil Woman”. All these years late I have not changed my mind and therefore, Captain still takes a back seat to Toulouse Street. The real magic in this album, which is outstanding meat, are the well crafted everything else, including the two hit singles “Long Train Runnin'” and “China Grove” both of which are just groovy electric guitar songs, the former being richly endowed with that whole train rhythm thing. The ultra bluesy “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” and the southern-rock blues of “South City Midnight Lady” capture more pure essence of Doobie Brothers than either of the opening side tracks.
Cajun Woman has a beautiful guitar pluck and Midnight Lady just feels all folky and jazzy with that pedal steel from Skunk. “Clear As The Driven Snow” is real song-craft. Beginning with an acoustic guitar round of two circling guitars, the revolutions duly increase speed as the wind blows and when the drums beat in, The Doobies three-part harmonies carry us to the crescendo finale. The same kind of skills are utilized in the three segued final acts, “Busted Down Around O’Connelly Corners”, “Ukiah”, and the title track. “Busted…” plays again with encircling guitars that typify a crossroads to “Ukiah” where the synthesizer accents on electric and acoustic guitars work much better than in “Natural Thing”. The melody is catchy, folky, and in a Creedence sort of way, the country is pleasantly electrified.
This “sacred land”scape works its way into your ears, you can actually smell the pines of Northern California. As the harmony vocals and guitars softly descend into “The Captain And Me” where encircling guitars once again stage our ceremony, the “starship” is ready to take off. Built around harmony vocals, banjos, acoustic guitars, and inspired drum exchanges, the song mutates per Doobie fashion into gospel soul rock. Tom has gone on record to say the song was composed at the last minute without any real meaning to the lyrics, but regardless of that fact, it is one of the finest compositions in their arsenal. So how about them apples?
The Doobie Brothers did find a formula for success as is apparent with just the first four releases: Toulouse Street charted at #21, The Captain And Me at #7, and What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits went to #4 and Stampede also clocked in at #4.
I still consider Toulouse Street as The Doobie Brothers album because of the effect it had on me. Read my review of that one there. Critical responses call The Captain And Me or Minute By Minute (depending on your camp) their biggest and best, but each and every album has its own independent merits that makes it a great album, so unabashedly I think that the response to judgment of Doobies albums is entirely emotional and based upon the listeners own experience. I usually end up listening to them in this order: Toulouse Street, The Captain And Me, What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, Stampede, Takin’ It To The Streets, Minute By Minute. Get it? And how do I rate them all? 5 big whopping stars for every one of them. Which one is my favorite? Today it is Toulouse Street, next Tuesday it might be Stampede.
The Doobie Brothers are a mainstream rock band with a few crucial limitations and a knack of making good records despite their flaws. Their big hit of a few months ago, “Listen to the Music,” displayed both: Leader Tom Johnston has a full catalog of compelling electric and acoustic guitar riffs, and in the single he puts a bunch of these to use, most importantly in his intro, a modified version of the beginning of Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life;” the instrumental arrangement, spirited but buoyant, is practically irresistible, and the Doobies put it together with precision.
What makes the song so irritating after repeated listenings (I’ve never seen a volume-raiser become a station switcher so quickly) are the affectedly funky singing by Johnston and backup and the shallowness of the song itself. “Ohohoh, listen to the music,” and the rest of the things-are-getting-better-day-by-day lyric would wear down even the most optimistic AMer after two or three weeks of hourly exposure, and, once you get past the nice guitar chording and double drumming, there isn’t much music to explore. Like all the music of the Doobie Brothers, it has its attractions, but you shouldn’t ask too much of it.
The Captain and Me is the best of the group’s three albums; it’s greatly superior to the last, the overdone Toulouse Street, from which the single was taken, and it’s better played, arranged and produced than the first LP, The Doobie Brothers, which had the best material. The Doobies have become an unusually polished recording group with an identifiable style: paired acoustic and electric rhythm work by Johnston and Pat Simmons, with Johnston adding well-placed lead lines for tension-building, a dense but never ponderous rhythmic punch provided by drummers John Hartman and Michael Hossack and bass player Tiran Porter, and, above all, the chugging rhythm, the slick, trebly Johnston lead vocals and group harmonies.
The first two tracks are variations on “Listen to the Music,” with those syncopated lines and dumb lyrics (‘We all got to be loved…” and “Without love/Where would you be now?”), and there’s a third variation later on. There are a couple of quieter tunes by Simmons: one, “South City Midnight Lady,” a rather pretty whore-with-a-heart-of-gold song in country-rock dress, the other, “Clear As the Driven Snow,” in which the group adds wind sound effects and jingle bells in an attempt to evoke a mood that’s already amply provided by a lovely Johnston guitar solo. There’s also an ugly high-energy track complete with shrieking, echoed harmonies, a Redbone-“Witchy Woman” takeoff (this may be a new genre), and the title song, a more lyrical version of the standard Doobie rhythm number.
In the two best tracks here, “China Grove” and “Without You,” the band changes things around by using full, ringing electric chordings instead of the usual acoustic and low-volume electric rhythm, and by keeping the lead singing rough and spontaneous-sounding. The sound on each track is so explosive that it won’t occur to you to find out what the song is about, and de-emphasizing their basic material is something the Doobies should do more often (as it happens, “China Grove” turns out to have the strongest lyric on the album, once you’ve dug it out of the crunching chords).
Neither Johnston (who writes most of the songs) nor Simmons is more than adequate as a songwriter, and Johnston’s whiny and emotionally thin singing doesn’t do much to improve the material. But the Doobie Brothers have plenty of style, and that style turns what would otherwise be a throwaway into an entertaining album.
The Captain and Me is the third album by The Doobie Brothers on which they combine their trademark funk with just a touch of California folk and country-rock. Combined, this distinctive yet diverse record was their most substantial and consistent of their early years, offering differing sonic textures and enjoyable tunes for an overall fulfilling listen. The album is bookmarked by several songs from guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston, including the album’s biggest hits and the title song which combine funk and rock with just a taste of traditional blues. In between and some contrasting, folk-oriented songs by keyboardist Patrick Simmons, which contain unique instrumental passages.
The group was formed in 1969 by Johnston and drummer John Hartman in Northern California. Simmons joined a year later along with bassist Tiran Porter and gained a strong following among local chapters of the Hells Angels. In 1971, the band signed with Warner Brothers and released their self-titled debut album to little commercial success. Later that year the band added a second drummer/percussionist Michael Hossack, completing the classic band lineup. The Doobies second album, Toulouse Street in 1972, fared much better on the strength of a couple of hit songs.
Warner put pressure on the band to move quickly on producing their third album along with producer Ted Templeman. They began reworking old tunes and improvisational pieces that they played live. The label did help out with the album artwork, providing 19th century garments and the horse-drawn stagecoach from the Warner Brothers film studios lot.
“Natural Thing”, a decent melodic rocker with a funky flanged guitar and good harmonies, starts off the album. The song is notable for its synthesized horn effects, which were put together by programmers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff who overdubbed individual notes to create the chords. Johnston’s “Long Train Runnin’” evolved from a long-time, ad-libbed jam called “Rosie Pig Moseley”. Templeman convinced Johnston to write words to the pure funk song, which also includes a distinctive harmonica solo by Johnston and a heavy presence by the dual percussionists. “Long Train Runnin’” became the band’s first Top Ten single.
Another charting hit was “China Grove”, one of the catchiest rock songs of the band’s career, built on a simple but effective riff along with exquisite production. Although the song’s title is based on a real town in Texas, the story is largely a fictional, with lyric’s again added by Johnston to an instrumental track titled “Parliament”. “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” takes a different approach, much darker than previous material. It is blue-eyed blues with good guitar licks, electric piano, and strings – almost Van Morrison in its feel.
“Clear As the Driven Snow” is Simmons first contribution to the album, a bright and acoustic folk song in the manner of John Denver, save for the fact that it morphs into a decent jam towards the end while never leaving the signature acoustic riff. Simmons also wrote “South City Midnight Lady”, an almost country acoustic ballad, which adds a serene, almost romantic element to the album. Pedal steel guitar is provided by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, then of Steely Dan, who would later become an official member of the Doobie Brothers. “Evil Woman” is probably the weakest song on the album, an unfocused and under-produced song which could have went somewhere had it been better developed.
The album’s closing sequence begins with “Busted Down Around O’Connelly Corners”, a short acoustic piece by James Earl Luft which into segues into “Ukiah”, a tribute to a small town in Northern California where the band frequently played in their early years. The song has a Chicago-style upbeat with driven bass by Porter and great lead guitar interludes. “Ukiah” acts as bridge song to title song finale, an acoustic Tune which trys to give the album a bit of a “concept” feel. Still, the song contains soaring guitars and harmonies which concludes the album on a high note.
In all, The Captain and Me is a potpourri of sonic phrases which best symbolizes the heart of the early Doobie Brothers sound. Although the band would achieve greater commercial success later in the decade, it was with a different sound and mainly different lineup.