House of Blues, April 20
By Frank Youngwerth
Who is Boz Scaggs--an aging rock star or an enduring legend? The obvious answer is the former--after one genuinely successful funky rock record in the late 70s and a sparse string of Top 40 singles in the 80s, Scaggs disappeared to California to start a quiet second career as a club owner.
But signs point to the latter, particularly the cover of Scaggs's new album, Come On Home (Virgin). It depicts some underprivileged black kids hanging out on a littered city sidewalk in front of a dilapidated storefront displaying two posters for upcoming shows. The one on the right heralds old-time R & B legend Hank Ballard, best known for writing "The Twist." The one on the left is for our man Boz, who, we're to presume, is exploring his "roots." And while it means next to nothing that Scaggs performed someplace called House of Blues two Sundays ago (the venue hosted Shonen Knife a few nights later), here's how the Web site for his former San Francisco club describes him: "The Blue Light Bar and Restaurant was opened in 1984 by legendary blues star Boz Scaggs." What's this geezer's deal?
When Scaggs first hit commercial paydirt in 1976 with his seventh album, the stunning Silk Degrees, he had spent more than half of his 32 years plugging away at music, initially in Texas and Wisconsin with a series of bands led by blues rocker Steve Miller, who taught Scaggs how to play guitar. Following the ever-changing currents of pop music, Scaggs emigrated to England with a group of Texas college buddies in 1964, at the peak of the British Invasion, but they failed to make any kind of dent in that country's overcrowded R & B scene. Scaggs took off to bum around Europe as a folksinger for a while, cutting a solo album in Sweden, Boz, that to this day remains obscure.
He returned to the States in 1967, just in time to hop aboard as a charter member of the psychedelic Steve Miller Band; he stayed on for two albums. One of Scaggs's neighbors at the time was Rolling Stone avatar Jann Wenner, who helped him land a solo deal with Atlantic and in 1969 coproduced his domestic debut album. Boz Scaggs was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with session musicians who regularly worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Almost nobody bought it.
Scaggs then signed with Columbia, where he spent the early 70s honing his trademark mellow vocal style, something of a cross between Van Morrison and Bobby "Blue" Bland, with a repertoire that balanced blues rock with smoky ballads. His next four albums got good reviews in Rolling Stone (imagine that!), but he still wasn't selling many records.
To make Silk Degrees the singer joined forces with a group of Los Angeles studio players who would go on to form the core of Toto. The eclectic album showcased "Lowdown," Scaggs's biggest single to date: a brilliantly arranged hybrid of bass-popping funk, jazz-rock guitar wailing, and slick disco on which Scaggs delivers a sassy jive vocal that anticipates hip-hop ("Got to have a Jones for this / Jones for that / This runnin' with the Joneses, boy / Just ain't where it's at"). The album also included the rollicking frat-party favorite "Lido Shuffle," another top-20 hit with a catchy synthesizer break to reverberate across musical-instrument showrooms everywhere for years to come. Silk Degrees eventually sold more than six million copies.
Next Scaggs delivered Down Two, Then Left, an appealing pop album that didn't yield any big hits. This may have provoked him to lead off 1980's Middle Man with tunes that closely approximated "Lowdown" ("Jojo") and "Lido Shuffle" ("Breakdown Dead Ahead"). Both duly reached the top 20, as did follow-up film ballad "Look What You've Done to Me" and an Al Green-inspired Hammond-organ groover, "Miss Sun." Scaggs closed out that busy year with a greatest-hits compilation, then proceeded to fade from public view. A final Columbia album, Other Roads (1988), slipped by on tiptoe to open the door for six more virtually silent years.
Scaggs finally signed with Virgin and put out the album Some Change in 1994. Though its songs were clearly aimed at a mainstream pop audience, the tracks had a rootsier feel than anything Scaggs had attempted in decades. A new emphasis on his own heartfelt, unvarnished guitar playing added an appropriately rough edge. One track released as a single, "I'll Be the One," did especially well in Chicago with the adult R & B "stepping" crowd. But that wasn't enough to make Some Change a national hit, leading Scaggs and Virgin to ponder whether perhaps even more change was in order.
On the face of it, there's certainly nothing objectionable about a stylist of Scaggs's caliber and diverse experience attempting an album's worth of well-chosen blues covers. But while Come On Home initially grabbed me with how easily Scaggs's eerie croon fits material associated with Jimmy Reed, Fats Domino, and Sonny Boy Williamson, further listening began to reveal the considerable gap between his passionless supper-club suavester approach and the minimum emotional depth essential to any convincing blues performance. When Scaggs wails, "The blues is all that I was left with," he conveys not the impression of a heartbroken, desolate sad sack but rather that of a career strategist running out of musical genres to exploit.
At the House of Blues show, Scaggs was mostly (and disappointingly) out of sync with his excellent, if underrehearsed, 11-piece backup group, particularly on his biggest hits. A mistake like not knowing when to come back out of the extended solo in "Lowdown" was soon enough forgotten, but the thoroughly botched final minute of "Lido Shuffle" (none of several chorus-ending phrases Scaggs belted out matched the chord changes the band was playing) concluded the show most unsatisfyingly. If he'd cared more, he might have yelled, "One more time!" and tried it again to get it right.
But it was a night for things to go wrong. The show's billing as a "Sunday Night Concert taping" for radio explained why the audience had to watch drummer Bucket Baker through a wall of Plexiglas dividers propped up to keep his sound out of the other instruments' microphones. At one point Scaggs stepped aside to give the spotlight to lead guitarist Drew Zingg, who wanked his way through chorus after string-breaking, crowd-pleasing chorus of the set-closing "Loan Me a Dime" (a solo spot handled by Duane Allman on Scaggs's Atlantic debut). Unexpectedly and embarrassingly, all the jumbo Plexiglas panes came tumbling down off the drum riser, some crashing right onto the spot where Scaggs had been standing for most of the night. It was ominously symbolic of Emperor Scaggs's utter failure to maintain a facade that he ought to realize his fans can see right through.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Boz Scaggs by David V. Kamba.