Drew Abbott's Blue Highway
In the summer of 1996, I had a chance to hear Seger play the final concert of his tour at Pine Knob, and a chance to hear Drew Abbott's current band play in Northern Michigan at a place called Mico's. I missed the first and caught the second. The essay that follows is the result.
(December 2007 note: Mico's burned down in the late 1990s. Drew Abbott now plays with a band called Leo Creek and occasionally with Alto Reed and other former Silver Bullets.)
Somewhere near the climax of one of Bob Seger's legendary live recordings is a moment I regard as an undisputable high point in recorded rock and roll. I've lost the exact spot where it occurs -- I think it may be near the end of "Katmandu" on Live Bullet, or then again maybe it's "Let It Rock" -- but I can hear it with terrific clarity in my head. The energy of the song builds, and at the crucial moment Seger shouts: "Drew Abbott! Guitar! Rock and roll!" -- and then Abbott and the band blast off, taking everything that's been building and paying it off double, and right there you know this is it, this is what rock and roll is all about.
That was then. Now, decades later, we're on our way to hear Drew Abbott and his band, Blue Highway at...well, at Mico's Restaurant -- "At the mouth of Clam River on Torch Lake" -- about forty-five minutes north of Traverse City, Michigan. This is thirteen years after Abbott left the band, thirteen years after the public trouble between Seger and Abbott, and as my close friend T.L. and I head north, we have no idea what to expect. Clearly it's not going to be like old times, not for us or for Abbott. Mico's sounds about as small-time as you can get -- and what really nails it is the day: it's a Monday night. I comment on this, but T.L. has an answer ready. You don't bring in a band on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday at a restaurant like Mico's, he sagely explains, because on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, you can count on a pretty good dinner crowd..."and you don't want to scare anybody away with a band." So this is what it's come to, I think. I purposely haven't worn my Bob Seger t-shirt.
T.L. is a friend from very far back. Together we've seen Seger (and Abbott) at the Michigan Jam, at the Pontiac Silverdome, at the legendary, priceless and defunct Primo Showbar in Ann Arbor and probably other places as well; it's hard to count the times. So now this. Driving up in the rental car, I'm glad Abbott's playing on a Monday, since it's one of the three nights I'll be in town. I'm also a little uneasy -- like I'm about to witness Abbott's long fall. This will be a little bit sad, I think. A little bit embarrassing. I couldn't be more wrong.
In fact, it's a wonderful evening, made wonderful by Abbott's guitar playing. Right away, the setting stops mattering. This isn't your standard Rock and Roll experience. This isn't music created in pursuit of fame, glory or riches. Rather, it's music created out of the love of music, and that's what makes all the difference. Once it gets started, I don't feel like I'm at a show. I feel more like we've stepped into Drew Abbott's basement rec room and that he picks up a simple guitar and unself-consciously charms out the real stuff as we have a few beers: pure, simple, full-bodied blues/rock guitar licks. The history fades, the years don't matter, and you're just inside the guitar, and loving it.
The four-piece Blue Highway is finishing up their first set with C'est La Vie as we reach the door. Drew's tasty guitar licks are instantly Silver Bullet recognizable. Seger, of course, does the same song on his Greatest Hits album, referring to it as an "old chestnut." I've always thought Seger's version was too polished and a little lifeless -- without the energy in Chuck Berry's scrappier version (the Berry version is one of the songs John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance to in Pulp Fiction). Blue Highway's version is definitely scrappy. And there's no irony here -- they play it fresh without any apparent reference to Seger. The vocals -- mainly handled by the bass player -- aren't much, just filler to get you from one instrumental break to another. Clearly, it's the music that matters.
T.L., a former restaurant man who's worked at the best places in Northern Michigan, moves past the Please Wait to Be Seated sign without slowing down. I figure maybe it's a professional courtesy for someone who's paid his dues, so I follow and we take a two-top close to the front. By song's end, though, the greeter -- a friendly, pony-tailed guy with a huge smile -- arrives to boot us out. The first set's over anyway, so we retreat to the bar. "That's where the band will be in a minute," T.L. predicts.
And he's right. Before we can order our drafts, Abbott walks behind the small, two-man bar, pours himself a drink of something that looks non-alcoholic, sips it, and then moves out to the breezy entrance way. He doesn't say a word while he does this, not that he's standoffish. He moves with the self--sufficiency and dignity you often see in very accomplished people. He reminds me visually of Ken Kesey -- a large man, barrel chested, but strong and solid. I'm impressed already and glad we made the trip.
We get a table as the second set starts. The four musicians sit on stools, the presentation entirely low key. Their modest equipment isn't much more, in size anyway, than the stuff my first high school rock band used to lug around. Not even that, actually. Just a few small amps, a few cords, a flimsy-looking stand with sheet music, and an empty beer pitcher with a sign that says "Donations" on one side and "Requests" on the other. A couple of wall-mounted Peaveys look like they might belong to the restaurant.
But the guitar breaks transport us from this. When Abbott plays, you can instantly hear the Silver Bullet sound -- I guess it should really be called the Abbott sound -- the clear guitar of Black Night, for example, or Beautiful Loser, or Long Song Coming. The band as a band isn't great and doesn't try to be. The musicians are excellent. Yet they aren't quite a band. Being a band, I'm thinking, sucks up all your energy and involves you in a pursuit of something unreachable for all but a lucky few -- and fleeting, for the few who do achieve it. A young man's game, maybe.
This is something different. It's more like four really excellent musicians who don't want to chase the golden ring anymore, but still love playing their instruments, and so they have this loose arrangement to come into Mico's on Monday nights and play these old standards. It gives them a chance to be with their music, and we get to be there too.
Around us, folks at about twenty tables are eating spaghetti and calzone. Families and boaters, most of them -- like me -- on vacation. The second set begins. Blue Highway plays "Carol" and the Berryesque guitar licks spill out, straight from the Let It Rock medley Seger once closed his shows with. Then Abbott takes the mic for vocals on a blues-laced Little Wing, the Hendrix cover. He sings softly, the vocals are barely there; the guitar weaves a soft, hazy Hendrix world...close your eyes and it's impossible not to fall in.
Weirdness, however, does arrive, though not the kind I'd expected. Halfway through the second set, the pony-tailed, high-energy greeter and seater who works the door -- the guy who booted us from our original table -- grabs the mic to introduce the band: the bass guitar player formerly with Mitch Ryder, the drummer who once played with J.J. Cale, the keyboard man from Bodiddley's band. And Abbott -- introduced as having played with Seger for ten years..."and if you saw Seger at Pine Knob last week," (and here I felt a deep, sinking stab of regret, because I wasn't at Pine Knob last week, and could have been), "you saw this guy take the stage for the encore, and he surprised a lot of people -- I think he even surprised Bob a little bit."
To which Abbott jokes, very low-key, "Yeah, he was surprised that I was vertical."
But that's not the weirdness. The band does a bar or two of "Old Time Rock and Roll" at the mention of Seger, and then the greeter, who looks a little like a very young John Travolta continues the introductions by saying, "...and my name's Dominic, and my dad owns the place!" After which he remains out front to handle audience requests, lame patter and, unbelievably, vocals for the next three songs. "If I have to seat people, I get to sing a few songs," he explains, launching into "Brown Eyed Girl."
This really pisses T.L. off. Dominic's over-the-top enthusiasm pulls the focus way, way off the music...and instead of playing tasty blues numbers, they start doing vapid audience requests. "American Pie" is the low point -- for the time being. As for me, I'm thinking: Abbott used to play lead for Bob Seger. Now he's playing lead for Dominic, whose dad owns the place. Abbott and the rest of the band don't seem too bothered by this, however. Dominic's voice is a bit grating, true... but still, he's having fun, and so is the spaghetti-eating crowd, and apparently so is the band. After all, they don't have to play here. They clearly aren't doing it for the money. Maybe they like Dominic. He's a fun guy. The band enjoys needling him. "And you wonder why there aren't many Italian blues singers," Dominic says at the end of one number. Abbott answers jokingly, "Dom, there aren't any Italian blues singers."
Some arriving diners still need greeting and seating, though, so Dominic gives up the mic after about fifteen minutes and the band gets back to the real thing. I'm loving it once again, feeling privileged to be there.
By now it's clear to me that the Seger misgivings I thought might be in evidence have long since resolved themselves for Abbott -- sure, there was some glory there, and some pain -- but the idea that that might still be a central or defining part of the man...that was just pure, uncensored naivete on my part. Life is a lot bigger than that...as anyone else would have known. I'm clearly the one with a Seger complex, not Abbott.
In fact, T.L. has previously turned me on to a fascinating fact about Abbott and Seger: earlier this summer, the other members of the original Silver Bullet band joined Abbott at Mico's -- giving themselves the delightful name Drew Abbott and the Stray Bullet. I find this amazing. What did Seger think about it, I ask. "He approved," T.L. says. "He understands the chemistry, the relationship..."
T.L. knows about this thanks to a recent Traverse City radio interview with Abbott. Reportedly, the Stray Bullet is due to make a second appearance at Mico's later in the summer. It's enough to make a Seger-obsessed person like myself wonder -- will Bob himself show up?
I laugh with T.L. about the possibility of a surprise appearance, the old band back together again, Seger knocking 'em dead at Mico's, and then, after just one song, up jumps Dominic to grab the mic away and take over vocals -- "because my dad owns the place!"
Though we enjoy laughing at his expense, Dominic more or less redeems himself during the third set. About halfway through, he takes the mic for good -- and once we get past "Oh Baby, It's A Wild World," the evening's other low point, the chemistry changes. "I'm beginning to like this guy now," T.L. says, meaning Dominic, and I agree. His vocals are better, and more importantly, the four musicians are into something, and he doesn't seem to be pulling them out of their groove the way he was before.
We hear a slew of early rock standards and covers, we hear an improvised Elvis medley that sees Abbott segueing into Jailhouse Rock as Dominic and the keyboard man swing into Blue Suede Shoes, we hear Runaround Sue. Then, wonderfully, to my complete surprise, we hear a Seger song. Dominic introduces it and someone at a near table gives a mock boo, but Dominic, showing his wit, turns it back adroitly: "They're booing Bob Seger! Tough crowd!," and Abbott, who is already somewhere inside in the music, begins a soulful, touching version of Turn the Page...the way it sounded before Reed joined the Silver Bullet band, without the huge, spotlit sax...and it's a beautiful, more complex version, more deeply rooted in blues. Somehow it's easy to ignore Dominic's vocals and even easy to ignore the irony of Abbott playing a song he's played before in other worlds. Good music will do that to you. It's the high point for me.
For T.L., the highlight comes late in the third set with a song they call Blues in G, better known as Steamroller, recorded famously by James Taylor. They do a killer version, no question, with Abbott leading the way.
By the end there's maybe twenty of us left at four or five tables, including a couple of families with young kids who are getting a tremendous kick out of talking with Dominic. When the last song is done -- I don't remember what it was -- Dominic thanks everyone and reminds us to drive slow going home "and watch out for deer." It's not quite the same as "Good night, get high and have a good time," from the end of Live Bullet, but it'll do. In fact it's perfect.
As Abbott is putting away his gear and winding up cords, someone calls out. "Good to see you, Drew! Maybe I'll see you again in another twenty years" -- some old acquaintance who happened to be in the crowd. It would be easy to go up and say hi -- but neither T.L. or I do. The whole fan thing seems out of place here. But afterward, in the car, I wish I had. Even in Mico's, even on a Monday night, musicians who are already sure of who they are and where they are probably still appreciate a "Great set!" or "Sounded good!" and I wish I'd taken the trouble to say thanks. So we drive off in the black night, me with my small regrets, watching out for deer, having learned a lesson about irony. I'd expected Abbott to be the one feeling sorry, but not so. What regrets there are turn out to be mine.
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