For a band that has released just three albums in the last 17 years, Huey Lewis and the News have found a way to stay together and also stay true to themselves as a touring act. They dug into the old Stax/Volt catalog and found, if not the fountain of musical youth, a wealth of fantastic, mostly forgotten soul songs that they have dusted off and given new life.
That’s the show and sound they brought to Butler’s Clowes Hall Saturday night, to a nearly full house of 2,000 fans. Lewis’ most recent album, Soulsville, features 14 songs from the glorious and gritty Stax days, and the singer and his band hit the crowd with many of them as they opened the show with nary a Huey hit until halfway through the set.
Yet it wasn’t a disappointment; it kinda felt right. While this wasn’t a greatest hits set by the 80’s band that experienced huge radio and sales success, it was a lesson in reinvention and playing to your strengths as performers.
Together 35 years, the band had guts to play new stuff, make it work live and still take care of the fans.
Featuring four horns and two female backup singers in addition to a core guitar/drums/keyboards/bass setup, Lewis paired a rock and soul presentation with his still-intact, distinct voice.
Early highlights included the church blues of “Free” and Solomon Burke’s “Got to Get You Off My Mind.” The two female singers were in the spotlight with the most familiar of his Soulsville covers, a fiery gospel take on the Staples’ “Respect Yourself”
The Soulsville album was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, and the musicians’ feel for the songs is evident live. The band is a cohesive, experienced unit; three original members besides Huey still tour in the band.
The crowd waited until the tenth song of the show before hearing one of the hits. “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” had less gloss and was ingested with some of the soul music still lingering in the air.
A two-song a capella set included “60 Minute Man,” before the band, minus horns and backup singers, fired up ”Heart and Soul” from Lewis’ massive 1983 album Sports. Seven million copies of Sports were sold. “I Want a New Drug” included a guitar solo echoing the spirit of the arena days, with a bit of bombast.
Originally tagged as a bar band that made it big, the front half of the show showed how tight and soulful they have become in the most recent years. The back half of the show served as a reminder of how that same bar band got big.
The four-song encore satisfied the audience’s desire for a run of favorites. “Power of Love” led into an eight minute Phish-like (!) version of “Jacob’s Ladder,” followed by a grooving take on “Bad is Bad” loose enough to be a Slippery Noodle jam session, and finished with an energetic “Working For a Livin’.” During the last song, Lewis pulled out his harmonica, an instrument he sprinkled liberally and effectively throughout the set, and jammed while standing on the stage monitors.