RETURN TO MOTOR CITY Bob Seger

 

Newly digitized, the ramblin’ gamblin’
man’s two double-live albums prove he was more than just an AOR radio
tunesmith.

 

BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON

By 1980,
Detroit rock ‘n’ roll legend Bob Seger was finally beginning to see some payoff
in a career that had crawled along slowly for almost 20 years. His Against The Wind album quickly vaulted
to the top of the charts on its way to multi-platinum sales status and would
yield a handful of hit singles, earning the artist his first GrammyTM Award. Seger
would later ride this rocket of popularity for the next decade and a half, chalking
up seven straight PlatinumTM albums on his way to induction in the Rock &
Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

 

Back in
’76, however, Seger was just another heartland rocker with his career in the
balance. After a four-year/four-album stint with Capitol Records in the late
1960s/early 1970s, Seger struggled following a single indie-label release and a
pair of albums for Warner/Reprise Records, none of which sold in significant
numbers even as Seger’s live audience continued to grow. Looking for one last shot
at the brass ring, Seger and his long-time manager Punch Andrews formed the
Silver Bullet Band with local musicians like former Third Power guitarist Drew
Abbott and sax player Alto Reed, both of whom Seger had previously worked with.

 

It was as Bob
Seger & the Silver Bullet Band that this new crew would record 1975’s Beautiful Loser album, Seger re-signing
with Capitol for one last chance at fame and fortune. The band dutifully hit
the road in the wake of the album’s release, even scoring an opening slot for
Kiss, only to get kicked off the high-profile 1976 tour after a dozen or so
shows for upstaging the headliners. Somewhere along the way, they performed for
hometown fans at Cobo Hall in Detroit,
the 1975 show recorded for posterity and released the following year as Live Bullet.

 

Contrary
to conventional wisdom, it wasn’t Live
Bullet
that broke Bob Seger to national audiences. Released in early 1976,
the two-LP set would slow burn its way to number 34 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, with most of its sales success
coming in the wake of the release of Seger’s 10th studio album, Night Moves, later that year. Seger’s career
breakthrough with Night Moves would
motivate fans to check out Live Bullet,
which built word-of-mouth and prompted further sales of Night Moves and Beautiful
Loser
in a self-fulfilling cycle that would push all three albums to
millions of copies in sales.         

 

The reason
behind the eventual success of Live
Bullet
is quite simple – in a decade littered with live albums from bands
that often had no business climbing on a stage, the performance by Seger and
the Silver Bullet Band that was captured by Live
Bullet
crackles with a raw energy and electricity forged by a couple
hundred nights on the road. Drawing on material from Beautiful Loser, as well as songs from Seger’s first seven albums
and a handful of choice covers, Live
Bullet
represented the best of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll and it would become one
of the best-selling live albums of all time.

 

Recorded
in front of an enthusiastic hometown crowd at the Motor
City’s legendary Cobo Hall in the
heart of downtown Detroit,
Live Bullet kicks off with a
scorching cover of the Ike & Tina Turner classic “Nutbush City
Limits.” With drummer Charlie Allen Martin kicking away at the bass drum,
and accompanied by Drew Abbott’s scorching fretwork, Seger pulls out all the
stops in providing the song a high-octane performance with a spoken word nod to
the audience, the song cresting to a frenzied finish.

 

The
retrospective, semi-ballad “Travelin’ Man” is a literate tale of life
on the road that has long been a fan favorite. While, in time, Seger’s ballads
would become more polished in delivery, in 1976 even his mid-tempo material
could suddenly explode into a cacophony of guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums;
Seger’s soul-drenched vocals pulled inspiration from influences like Otis
Redding and James Brown. “Travelin’ Man” cranks along for a few
minutes before reaching its instrumental peak, then segueing seamlessly into
“Beautiful Loser,”  

 

“Beautiful
Loser” has long been both a favored and a sorely overlooked gem in the
Seger songwriting catalog. Sporting a nifty set of Van Morrison-styled lyrics that
firmly place the singer in the role of the misunderstood loner, Abbott’s bluesy
albeit understated guitar licks and Robyn Robbins’ gospel-tinged keyboards
perfectly frame Seger’s elegant vocals. Seger and the band lend an undeniably
funky slant to Morrison’s “I’ve Been Working,” alternating between
soft and hard, the performance peppered with Abbott’s imaginative six-string
play and icy blasts from Alto Reed’s ever-present saxophone. Seger channels his
inner James Brown on the vocals, swaggering and swooning like a vintage
soul-shouter, taking the song to new heights.  

 

Seger
turned to his rich and deep back catalog for many of the performances on Live Bullet, often with astounding
results. The classic rock radio staple “Turn The Page,” a great
lament on the weariness of life as a rock ‘n’ roll road warrior, was first
recorded for Seger’s criminally-out-of-print Back In ’72 album, one of the best hard rock records of the era.
Seger’s high lonesome vocals here are accompanied by a truly sparse, smothering
arrangement with Reed’s ethereal saxwork providing a nice edge to Martin’s
brushes and Abbott’s muted guitar.

 

From this
point, the gloves come off and Live
Bullet
achieves the terminal velocity that would make rock ‘n’ roll
history. “U.M.C. (Upper Middle Class)” is a funky, R&B tinged
rocker from Seger’s 1974 album Seven,
a bit of social commentary with a slippery groove and twangy fretwork. Early
blues/rock legend Bo Diddley’s signature tune, “Bo Diddley,” is
fuel-injected with an amped-up reading of Diddley’s namesake staggered rhythm,
Seger shouting out the lyrics above Reed’s rockin’ sax and the hard-driving
instrumental bedrock built by bassist Chris Campbell and drummer Martin.

 

From his
1968 album of the same name with the Bob Seger System, “Ramblin’ Gamblin’
Man” was his first regional hit back in the day, establishing the artist
as a hard rock favorite in the narrow band of the Northeast U.S. “rust
belt” that runs in a line from Detroit to Buffalo, New York. Delivered
here, the song is seen as both a triumph and a desperate last shot at fame.
Seger spits out the lyrics rapid-fire, with a swaggering certainty as the band
lends harmony vocals above the houserockin’ rhythmic chaos, which itself is
carpet-bombed with Abbott’s razor-sharp leads.

 

The
crowd-favorite “Heavy Music” is Seger covering himself, the song a
mid-1960s original by Bob Seger & the Last Heard that appeared on his
excellent 1972 collection of covers, Smokin’
O.P.’s
. While generally an up-tempo number, it’s really designed as a
breather for the band as the singer engages in a little call-and-response with
the audience as various band members throw down brief solos before jumping in
for a big finish. Campbell’s underlying bass line here is particularly strong,
menacing and, well, heavy with just a taste of funk.

 

“Heavy
Music” leads directly into the barn-burner “Katmandu,” then a new track from Beautiful Loser but a live staple ever
since, and as close to a hit single as that album would enjoy. Abbot walks the
song in with a few raucous guitar licks as Seger does a spoken word intro that
jumps into the fast-paced and now-familiar rocker. A rollicking lyrical flight-of-fancy
with shout outs to various regions of the country, “Katmandu” allows
the band to show off its chops, with Martin’s locomotive drumbeats and Reed’s
soulful sax notes rising to the surface.

 

Live Bullet closes out with the two-fisted knockout
punch of “Get Out Of Denver” and a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Let
It Rock.” The former is a frantic, fast-paced, Chuck Berry-inspired rocker
from Seven while the latter is an
equally up-tempo Berry
track from Smokin’ O.P.’s. While
delivered with a street-punkish ferocity and intensity, “Get Out Of
Denver” is a hilarious story-song with scorched-earth guitar, honky-tonk
piano-pounding, and crashing drumbeats. “Let It Rock,” a garage-rock
standard, is performed entirely in the spirit of the original, with a driving
beat and blistering guitar.          

 

A lone
bonus track has been attached to the end of Live
Bullet
for this 2011 reissue, a 1976 recording from a Pontiac, Michigan
performance – not quite Seger’s backyard, but definitely in his neighborhood, a
show that reportedly drew 80,000 fans from across the state years before Seger
was a star anywhere else. A cover of the blues classic “I Feel Like
Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” a song that has been sung by everybody from
Etta James and Albert King to Ann Peebles, it adds an appropriate coda to the
original album. Showcasing one of Seger’s finest soulful vocal turns and
Abbott’s stinging, emotional fretwork, the song reaches back into the artist’s
deep blues and R&B roots, displaying a rootsy edge that would largely be
worn down by Seger’s 1980s-era commercial peak.

 

* * * * *

 

In the
summer of 1980, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band accomplished something
that no artist before or since has done, selling out nine consecutive shows at
Detroit’s Cobo Hall, and then adding another half-dozen or so sold-out
performances at the nearby Pine Knob Amphitheatre a couple of months later. Pre-Internet,
tickets were sold on a lottery basis – you sent in your money order with a self-addressed,
stamped envelope and, if you were lucky and the gods smiled upon you, the
postman would ring later with your tickets. The Reverend would be lucky enough
to grab four pairs of tickets for the Detroit shows, which featured local
legend Mitch Ryder coming out of retirement to open for Seger.

 

Some of
the performances from those nine legendary nights in Detroit
would be mixed with portions of a Boston
show from later in 1980 to comprise the tracklist of 1981’s Nine Tonight, Seger’s second live album
in a little more than five years. A lot had happened during the four year
interim after the release of the Live
Bullet
album that had cemented his success in the wake of that year’s commercial
and critical breakthrough, Night Moves.
Seger’s 1978 follow-up, Stranger In Town,
would build upon his earlier popularity and reach number four on the Billboard magazine albums chart, while
1980’s Against The Wind would hit
number one.

 

Considering
the successes of the previous few years, and the enormous demand for Bob Seger
& the Silver Bullet Band as a touring entity, it made sense for Capitol to
release another live collection so soon after the previous album. It should
come as no surprise that Nine Tonight draws more heavily from Seger’s late 1970s albums rather than his earlier work,
and features live versions of the big hits of the previous five years like
“Night Moves,” “Fire Lake,” and “Against The
Wind,” among others.

 

The Silver
Bullet Band itself had changed by the time of the shows documented by Nine Tonight, drummer Charlie Allen
Martin replaced by former Seger sidekick David Teegarden after a tragic
accident, and keyboardist Craig Frost brought on board from Grand Funk
Railroad. With guitarist Drew Abbott and saxophonist Alto Reed still in the
spotlight, though, the Silver Bullet Band roared on without missing a beat, and
Nine Tonight would rapidly hit number
three on the Billboard albums chart
on its way to selling over three million copies.

 

Nine Tonight opens with the title track, a song
originally recorded for the soundtrack of the movie Urban Cowboy; here the song takes on a greater immediacy. An
up-tempo rocker with thick instrumentation, with Abbott’s guitar set on stun
and Reed’s sax blasting wildly, Seger’s vocals seem strained, the song
seemingly not part of his and the band’s normal rotation. Their cover of Otis
Clay’s Memphis soul classic “Tryin’ To Live My Life Without You”
fares much better; released as a single, it hit number five on the charts. Atop
the band’s Southern-fried groove, Seger again turns to James Brown for
inspiration, sweating and strutting across the stage as he delivers a
pitch-perfect reading of the original’s heartbreak lyrics.

 

A large
part of Seger’s success was built upon his finely-crafted ballads, with
“You’ll Accomp’ny Me,” from Against
The Wind
, is a perfect example. Seger’s ability to take his sentimental,
often heart-wrenching lyrics and imbue them with no little soul while retaining
a gruff, masculine demeanor allowed both men and women to embrace the songs.
“You’ll Accomp’ny Me” is a mid-tempo romantic plea with simple but
imaginative lyrics, Seger’s smooth vocal performance assisted by a steady
soundtrack with dashes of piano and guitar.

 

While his
ballads are what grabbed the lion’s share of radio airplay and put money in the
bank, it was the rockers that sold concert tickets, and Nine Tonight has its share of both. “Hollywood Nights” is
a glitzy, revved-up story-song, a romantic tale of the type that John
Mellencamp would later ride to success. With a driving rhythm and plenty of
guitar and piano threaded throughout, Seger’s considerable vocals are almost
swallowed up by the instrumental crescendo. “Old Time Rock And Roll”
was an obscure track from Stranger In
Town
until it was used in a memorable scene in the movie Risky Business; its subsequent release
as a single would barely scrape the Top Thirty, however its longevity and
consistent radio airplay over the following 30 years would make it a pop
culture touchstone.

 

Here,
“Old Time Rock And Roll” is delivered as a blustery, swaggering
rave-up complete with female backing vocals and an undeniable bluesy
undercurrent that is guaranteed to get your toes tapping. Reed’s sax blows like
an inspired cross between King Curtis and Clarence Clemons while Abbott’s
guitar, nearly overshadowed by the claustrophobic instrumental track, gets down
to a lil’ funky chicken-picking. “Against The Wind” is one of Seger’s
more recognizable ballads, a character-driven (autobiographical?) lament with
some great lyrical lines and brilliant imagery. Seger nails the vocals here
with a beautiful wistfulness, the world-weary perspective of the romantic soul looking
backwards at what might have been before accepting his fate. Frost’s piano here
provides elegant accompaniment, but it’s Seger’s plaintive voice that drives
the performance.

 

The
rocking “Feel Like A Number” is another sadly overlooked selection
from the Seger songbook, neither fish nor fowl as it ventures into uncertain
social commentary, something the artist had seldom done since the early 1970s
and “U.M.C.” Seger’s outrage is just as appropriate today as it was
in 1980, the song dripping with working class angst and assembly-line
alienation. Seger’s vocals are slung low in the mix, Abbott’s riffs riding the
wind alongside Teegarden’s gale-force drumbeats before exploding into an
incendiary solo as Seger nearly screams the lyrics, exclaiming “dammit,
I’m a man!” above the cluster of instrumentation. This is the one truly
exemplary performance from the album that would have been worthy of Live Bullet.

 

Another
big hit from Against The Wind,
“Fire Lake” is a Springsteen-styled, character-driven tale with a bit
of country twang mixed with R&B uproar that would become another classic
rock radio staple and hit the top of the charts. The career-building
“Night Moves,” another classic Seger ballad, is where the artist’s
talent finally caught up with his ambition, delivering a near-mystical account
of teenage lust and romance that struck a chord with audiences from coast to
coast. Seger’s live 1980 rendition of the song differs little in substance from
the 1975 original save for a maybe a little more passion, a little more
dynamics in the sound, and a richer instrumental backdrop.

 

The
rambunctious “Rock And Roll Never Forgets,” also from Night Moves, is one of several Seger
odes to the rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic; in the hands of a lesser artist it would
sound pandering and silly, but Seger always brought a street-savvy regal air to
such performances. The reading here is a guitar-driven party with a blue-collar
vibe, Abbott’s six-string ringing like a bell as Frost’s piano tinkles away in
the background and Teegarden’s drums lurk nearby delivering the big beat. It’s
the kind of bar-band-made-good storytelling that much of Seger’s legacy was
built on, and he does it proud.

 

An equally
raucous, road-tested cover of Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock” is a
long-time feature of the band’s live set, and although the version for Nine Tonight was (sadly) edited by
several minutes to cram it on the CD, the unbridled energy and reckless spirit
of the song shines through nonetheless. For this 2011 reissue, “Brave
Strangers,” from Stranger In Town,
has been tacked on the end of the album as a bonus track, and while the song is
an effective, introspective mid-tempo rocker, it’s too much in the vein of
“Night Moves” or “Against The Wind” to stand out. They’d
have been better off including the full edit of “Let It Rock” and let
the album truly blow down the doors.

 

Bob Seger
would go on to achieve greater heights of success in the 1980s and, to a lesser
extent, the 1990s, even while cutting back on both touring and recording after
his prolific creative streak during the 1970s. In 1995, Seger would effectively
retire from the business for better than a decade while raising his family,
returning to the spotlight with 2006’s Face
The Promise
, which would take him back to the top of the charts and
PlatinumTM sales status. A sold-out tour would follow the album’s release, and
prompt the possibility of a new Seger album in 2012.

 

* * *

 

One of the
last major artists to resist the lure of digital music sales, Seger finally
acquiesced with the reissue releases of Nine
Tonight
and Live Bullet, both
albums available on CD and from iTunes and other online retailers for downloading.
The re-mastered sound of both reissues is vastly improved from the original CD
releases, and even the cover artwork of Live
Bullet
is crisper and clearer than the fuzzy crap they used for the 1999 CD
reissue I’m looking at.

 

Live Bullet is arguably the better of the two albums,
with more rock and less squawk, and the performances are, by and large, more
stripped-down, raw and rockin’ than the lushly-orchestrated arrangements you’ll
find on Nine Tonight. Still, for fans
that discovered Seger in the late 1970s or early 1980s rather than with
“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and “Lucifer,” Nine Tonight is a fine artifact of the artist’s commercial peak.  

 

Now that
you’re a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll legend, Bob, can you get over your
embarrassment of those early albums and reissue CD versions of such long
out-of-print 1970s-era albums as Mongrel,
Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man and, for Pete’s
sake, Back In ’72? Really, Bob, it’s
about time….  

 

 

Leave a Reply