(Pictured: Boz Scaggs, onstage in 2014.)
How long would it take for an artist who’s been recording regularly and successfully for over 45 years to encapsulate his entire career on the concert stage? For Boz Scaggs, it took 90 minutes.
Last Sunday night’s show at the Northern Lights Theater of Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee was technically the third time I’ve seen Boz perform: once on an unusual bill with Ben Sidran and once with Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald as the Dukes of September. Nevertheless, a full Boz show has been on my bucket list for quite a while, so I was glad to finally have the chance to cross it off.
The purpose of Boz’s tour, which is the most extensive one he’s undertaken in years, is to promote his new album A Fool to Care, so he included the title song, a Fats Domino original, along with “Hell to Pay,” which appears on the album as a duet with Bonnie Raitt, and the beautiful “Last Tango on 16th Street.” His 2013 album Memphis was represented by “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl.” He went back to the dawn of his career to open and close the show, with “Runnin’ Blue” and “Loan Me a Dime.” His band sounded great—most notably backup singer Ms. Monét, and especially her solo performance of Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me.” She was spectacular.
Based on the long arc of Boz Scaggs’ career, blues and soul music is what comes most directly from his heart. But anyone who knows that long arc knows that for a long time, Boz took a detour from that music, which lasted almost two decades.
Slow Dancer (1974) was his first largely pop-oriented album, followed by Silk Degrees and its long list of classics. His soul leanings were still on display on Down Two Then Left (1977), but by 1980, and the release of Middle Man, he was all in on being a pop star. Before he played “Jojo” on Sunday night, he joked that it was a song he’d written during “the Hollywood years.” After Middle Man, Boz took an eight-year hiatus from recording. When he returned with Other Roads, the blues-and-soul man was completely absent—Other Roads chased every last late-80s pop trend, and sounds remarkably dated as a result.
But something happened between 1988 and the release of Some Change in 1994—the wisdom that comes to us when we start pushing 50, perhaps. Some Change marked the return of the blues and soul man, with the best songs he’d put on an album since Silk Degrees. (The title song was one of the highlights of his show on Sunday night.) Since 1994, Boz has detoured into intimate small-combo jazz (But Beautiful and Speak Low, your fondness for which will be in direct proportion to how fond you are of Boz’s unadorned voice), and he veered back into a pop direction for Dig in 2001, but he’s always returned to blues and soul. And now, at the age of 71 (!), he’s making the best music of his long career.
Because people come to hear the hits, Boz gave us plenty of Silk Degrees on Sunday night—five songs, including “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” to close the main part of the show, and “What Can I Say” as his first encore. After a smoking “Loan Me a Dime,” the show was over a mere 90 minutes after it began. Oddly enough, however, it didn’t feel incomplete. As a portrait of the man’s career, it was almost perfect.
Almost. “Breakdown Dead Ahead” would have been nice, but we don’t always get what we want. And that’s OK.