I was conflicted about attending one of Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s farewell tour shows in Detroit. I pretty much wrote Bob off around the time of Against the Wind (to which we always added the prefix “Don’t Pee”). I didn’t care for his hard turn into Kenny Rogers’s territory after he achieved national success with Night Moves and Stranger in Town. But I’ve always said that he should do a residency every summer at Pine Knob (DTE Theater), a venerable outdoor shed a half hour from his house. So I swallowed hard and anted up the $150 for a decent seat for the first of his six final shows at the Knob.
I’m a huge fan of Seger’s early work up through the aforementioned Stranger in Town. Then success changed the man, as it often changes those who enjoy it. He was no longer Rockin’ Robert Seger, but more like Uncle Bob, adrift in the middle-of-the-road. Throughout the 80s, on albums Against the Wind, The Distance, Like a Rock and the live Nine Tonight, he scored multi-platinum hits with mid-tempo snoozers like “Fire Lake,” “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” and “Shame on the Moon.” After Like a Rock, his core fan base graciously continued to dead-lift later tepid releases into the Top 40.
Bob also essentially stopped touring after Like a Rock in ‘86. For the next twenty years, he only rode out once (’96). Bob’s first of two children was born in ’92 and he dedicated his life to time with his family, which is totally understandable. But by the time he got back on the road in ’06, supporting the curiously-titled Face the Promise, this once-powerful live performer had lost much of his upper vocal range and a lot of career momentum.
Bob Seger tours of the last decade have been mostly sold-out nostalgia affairs. His fans adore him, especially in Michigan, and we stand and sing along to all his hits and classics. Roll Me Away: The Final Tour is no different. But again, I had to swallow hard and accept what Bob is today – a 74-year old golf and motorcycle enthusiast who was once a rock star.
He came out on stage looking trim, but a bit too back-yard casual in jeans and a blousy dri-fit shirt. He was rocking Santa spectacles, and then about three tunes in he threw a black terry-cloth headband on over his floppy gray sheep-dog lid. I’ve got to admit I had a little trouble taking him seriously with the headband. I’m used to seeing the likes of Mick and Steven Tyler who have maintained a sense of style throughout extended careers. Bob once had a strong style sense too, with his flowing locks, flared trousers and platform soles. How about dusting off the vest, brother?
Make no mistake, I enjoyed this show with its equal parts cringe and triumph. The rock-solid band has some new faces, but all are stellar performers who treat Bob’s tunes with the deference he’s earned. Now, if you will, please indulge me as I lead you through my takes on the Silver Bullet set list:
“Shakedown”: Bob was fired up and the crowd welcomed him back to the stage where he’s had 33 sell-out performances. This song from the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack is his only #1 hit, and I’m told he hasn’t performed it in a while. His stage moves were a little stiff and I could tell he was going to lean heavily on back-up singers Barbara Payton and Laura Creamer (and the crowd). No headband!
“Still the Same”: This tired chestnut sounded weak and plodding.
“Fire Down Below”: Bob invited us “down below” and the band let it rock, but Bob struggled to deliver the classic rock-shouter vocal.
“Mainstreet”: Another enduring chestnut that featured a new arrangement, with multi-instrumentalist Alto Reed (Tommy Cartmell) playing the signature guitar melody on sax.
“Old Time Rock & Roll”: Ugh. I can’t stand this song and it was the low point of the set. Bob was in full headband mode and his marching and awkward pointing and fist-pumping made it feel like an aerobics class at a senior center.
“Fire Inside”: No thank you.
“Shame on the Moon”: More truck-stop cassette music. Bob sitting down with an acoustic guitar was a nice change of pace, though. It’s an old cowboy song penned by Rodney Crowell and Bob shines as an interpreter of other writers’ work.
“Roll Me Away”: This is mid-tempo grandma shit, but the crowd ate up the “twelve hours out of Mackinac City” bit. At this point I didn’t think I was going to make it through the whole show.
“Come to Poppa”: Yes! Bob’s version of this “Poppa” Willie Mitchell tune has been a live staple since it appeared on Night Moves. The band rocked with a ballsy rendition and Bob seemed to recapture some old soul glory on the vocal.
“Her Strut”: Another highlight! Lead guitarist Rob McNelley shined on this rock grinder as the band started to hit its stride. Bob told us that it was the most played song of 1981. Hard to believe with “Bette Davis Eyes” kicking around that year.
“Like a Rock”: Bob shared that he wrote this about running cross-country in high school. OK… As much as I loathe this song after it’s seemingly endless run as the theme song for Chevy trucks, it was surprisingly a highlight for me. The big band did it justice and McNelley crushed the slide-guitar part using a Duane Allman-approved coricidin bottle.
“You’ll Accomp’ny Me”: Next.
“We’ve Got Tonite”: According to Bob, this was his late mother’s favorite of his songs. Wonder if she ever listened to the lyric? This didn’t do much for me, but it was nice to see Bob at the piano.
“Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser”: When they chugged into “Travelin’ Man” I wondered if they’d do the Live Bullet version with “Beautiful Loser.” They did, and the band nailed all the classic bits from that masterpiece live recording.
“Turn the Page”: Another highlight! Alto is hungry for the spotlight and he got one all his own as he seemed to hang from the wall at stage right. This arrangement had a Roxy Music-flavor with Mr. Reed playing a counter melody under the second and third verses.
“Forever Young”: This is a Dylan cover and once again Bob offered an excellent interpretation. He dedicated it to his late friend and fellow Michigan native Glenn Frey. The montage of photos of rockers who are no longer with us was a nice touch. Tom Petty got a particularly appreciative reaction.
“Ramblin Gamblin Man”: This was Bob’s first hit and an appropriate follow-up to the Frey tribute, as Glenn sang back-up on the hit studio version. This was again the classic Live Bullet arrangement and Barb Payton and Laura Creamer owned the background vocals.
“In Your Time”: As the father of a 3-year old boy, I was moved by Bob’s reference to his then 2-yr old son, for whom he wrote this song. I was not so much moved by the song itself, which is sort of a warmed-over sentiment.
“Against the Wind”: This remains quintessential hits-era Bob and it still fits in his diminished vocal range. The woman in front of us had on a vintage tour shirt with the line, “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then” on the back. What a great line.
“Hollywood Nights”: Bob marched and fist-pumped us off on a road trip to the City of the Angels. This is a great keyboard rock song and Silver Bullet’s two keys guys, Jim “Moose” Brown and former Grand Funk keyboardist Craig Frost, destroyed it. This live arrangement shed new light for me on just how great the rhythm parts are in this tune.
“Famous Final Scene”: This was a big surprise and the best song of the set (see my eyewitness video). This was peak Bob, at the piano belting this soulful epic from Stranger in Town. He added it even though it lengthened the set, “But dammit, I’m home.” A great addition for his final tour and a heart-felt rendition that featured Bob’s strongest vocal of the night.
“Night Moves”: This is the song that brought Bob national acclaim. A huge hit and a sentimental favorite of the crowd, as we all sang as one remembering “the back room, the alley or the trusty woods.” Bob sat down with the acoustic again as the band gathered around. This is why I came; it sounded great.
“Rock n Roll Never Forgets”: They closed the show strong reminding us that we can always come back, baby. A great montage of old Bob photos was fun to see. I was trying to shake ’em down, but I wouldn’t say it was my dignity that I stopped to think about.
It’s hard to square my expectations of Bob Seger with the actual man himself. He was a seminal artist in my rock fanaticism, repping my hometown on the national stage, driving hard and paying dues. But now he’s what happens when you stop doing what you do, and then try to get back to it when it’s more convenient. He’s also a guy who’s written a ton of great songs and masterfully covered many more. It was a remarkable paradox, and on this wistful early summer night Bob poured out everything he had. I’m glad I was there.
Related post: Detroit Booze Rock