In the summer of 1977, Steve Miller was riding the crest of his fame. His just-issued album, “Book of Dreams,” was well on its way to becoming the third biggest-selling album of the year, driven by a trio of Top 10 hits, culminating with “Jet Airliner.” By any measure, he was a mainstream pop star ready to own the moment.
But listen to Miller’s performance with his band on Aug. 3, 1977 from the Capital Center in Landover, Md., and you’ll hear a level of adventurousness and freedom that pushes way beyond the narrow bounds of pop. Take the version of “Fly Like an Eagle.” The song’s essential melody and rhythm have a strong enough pull to explain its swift rise to No. 2 on the Billboard charts. But only in performance can we recognize the music’s full potential. While a cutting-edge ARP Odyssey synthesizer, manned by Byron Allred, whooshes and shimmies around the edges of the song, Miller coaxes an array of guitar textures that slither and quaver, then cackle and bray, mimicking the expressive brushstrokes of abstract art.
The headiness of the sound extends the lineage of West Coast psychedelia that, along with the blues, first inspired Miller to form the original incarnation of his band in 1966. This show brings that level of exploration to a whole new playing field. After all, it’s one thing to take creative leaps when you’re an underground upstart in an era primed for anything new. It’s quite another to integrate those principals into the super-commercial world of ‘70s arena-rock. That’s exactly what Miller and his band pull off in this concert.
By balancing daring and ease, they not only transcend genres, they link eras. Of the 17 pieces they deliver, just three come from Miller’s pre-pop, pre-1973 phase. In ’73, he finally broke through to the mainstream with the song and album “The Joker.” The earlier pieces represent his most radio-friendly efforts from that era, “Living in the U.S.A.” and “Space Cowboy.”
As an intro to “Living in the U.S.A.,” Miller and harmonica player Norton Buffalo offer dueling harps, huffing up a storm of inspired country-blues. Switching to guitar, Miller mixes a hard-core rock lead with the slippery scales of jazz. He goes further in “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma,” with his riffs and leads blending rock, jazz and blues while Lonnie Turner’s rumbling bass adds a touch of funk. Country-blues again comes into play during the sole acoustic number, a version of Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen,” to which Miller lends his own sly riff.
When he was a child, his parents befriended Les Paul and Mary Ford, who encouraged the boy’s early guitar explorations.
Jazz and blues influences run deep in Miller. His father was an amateur recording engineer; his mother a jazz singer. When he was a child, his parents befriended Les Paul and Mary Ford, who encouraged the boy’s early guitar explorations. Later, musicians like Charles Mingus and T-Bone Walker became family friends. The latter taught Miller his technique.
In this show, Miller’s band adds aspects of fusion and prog-rock, evidenced by the “Space Intro” to “Fly Like an Eagle” and the extended synth intro by Allred in “The Stake,” evoking Vangelis and Jan Hammer. If that’s not enough, the band employs a gong. For more psychedelia, it leans into the Indian influences of “Wild Mountain Honey” — the only thing missing is a tabla. At the same time, the music couldn’t rock harder. Miller’s guitar breaks in “Space Cowboy” crunch with the concussive force of those in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” while “Mercury Blues” mirrors the metallic boogie of peak ZZ Top.
No fewer than three guitarists (including David Denny and Greg Douglass) often harmonize their leads, echoing the triple guitar threat of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Despite such force, the music feels breezy. Coupled with some key lyrics, it captures something quintessentially American. At root, the show expresses the openness, optimism and fun of the road. How perfect for a concert recorded in the wake of the nation’s bicentennial.
During this period, American rock ruled, with groups like Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band and the Eagles. Miller’s group earned a place in their company by amassing sales of more than 8 million albums between 1973 and ‘77, presaging a hits compilation issued the next year that would move more than 14 million copies. Its popularity was fueled by hits performed here like “Take the Money and Run,” “Jet Airliner” and “Rock‘n Me.” They’re rock songs that pop. But this show leaves room for the band to roam as well. The result creates a sound at once expansive and catchy, spacy and clean.