Classic Rock Corner

Review: The Doobie Brothers and the Robert Cray Band at the Woodlands Pavilion

John Cowan, Patrick Simmons, Marc Russ, John McFee, Marc Quinones (back) and Tom Johnston.
John Cowan, Patrick Simmons, Marc Russ, John McFee, Marc Quinones (back) and Tom Johnston. Photo by Sean Thomas
The Doobie Brothers last played Houston in 2021, also at the Woodlands Pavilion. And they brought Brother Michael McDonald (vocals/keyboards) back in the fold to help celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary on tour. Which itself was delayed due to COVID.

Things have gone so swimmingly that founding members Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons (vocals/guitars) have kept that long train runnin’ and returned again with McDonald, and fourth “official” Doobie John McFee (vocals/guitar/multiple instruments). Also, their longtime road band Marc Russo (sax), John Cowan (bass/vocals), Ed Toth (drums) and newest member Marc Quiñones (percussion).

That means that fans get to hear material from both Johnston’s more rocking/biker bar era, as well as McDonald’s smoother R&B leanings during his tenure.
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Michael McDonald
Photo by Sean Thomas
Los Hermanos Doobies came out of the gate strong with the Johnston-era “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” both sizzling with energy. Simmons and McDonald shared vocal duties and led the funky “Dependin’ on You,” While McDonald sand-and-butter singing shone on the romantically pleading “Minute by Minute.”

Two of the show’s best songs were likely unfamiliar to most of the crowd as they were both newer: Johnston’s raucous New-Orleans-inspired “World Gone Crazy” (the title cut from their 2010 record), and “Cannonball,” Simmons’ ode to motorcycles and the people who ride them off 2021’s Liberté.
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Patrick Simmons
Photo by Sean Thomas
Both more than prove a concept that I’m passionate about: That your favorite Classic Rock bands are still capable of creating new music that can go toe-to-toe with the big hits of yesteryear. Which is good, because the Doobie Brothers are finishing up a new studio album, and this time with Brother Michael back recording as well.

And, as Simmons noted from the stage, “We’re now on our next 50 years of making music!”

Shockingly, time seems to have done nothing to deter the vocal power of McDonald and Johnston, still sounding like their decades-old recordings. Simmons’ pipes have thinned out a bit, but now add something of a vulnerability and wistfulness to his songs.
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Tom Johnston and John McFee (front); Marc Quinones and Ed Toth (back)
Photo by Sean Thomas
If any man on stage earned the VIP Award for Heavy Lifting, it was the skilled alto-blowing Russo. There was a lot of saxophone this night, more than any of the previous five Doobie shows I’ve seen. There were solos. There was sax playing on songs that didn’t have them on the record. And Russo with his flowing white hair seemed to pop up on all areas of the stage.

Cowan—normally an up front and animated vocal and playing force—looked a bit peaked and stayed toward the back of the stage, almost in the shadows. The only complaint really was about…staging.
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Marc Russo and John Cowan
Photo by Sean Thomas
The entire band performed in front of a huge horizontal video screen that stretched from side-to-side and hung above them.

Throughout the night it showed variously old casual video of the band from the ‘70s, concert or staged music videos (often played in sync with while the real deal were performing just below), along with animation, B-roll footage, and scenes from old movies.

It by nature deflected attention and eyeballs from the men actually playing live with their feet on the ground. And as it ran the entire course of the concert, did get annoying and distracting after a while.
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Tom Johnston and Ed Toth (back)
Photo by Sean Thomas
As the set barreled to the end, the Doobies pulled out all the Big Guns. “Jesus is Just Alright” (Simmons), “Long Train Runnin’” (Johnston), and “What a Fool Believes” (McDonald) each stood out and spreading the accolades among members.

Their show closer, as usual, was “Listen to the Music.” It always turns into a joyous celebration of community when the audience takes a couple of choruses toward the end. And it never seems to fail to thrill Johnston, earning one of his patented fist pumps in the air that telegraph his pleasure. A feeling that the crowd this night definitely shared.
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John McFee and Michael McDonald
Photo by Sean Thomas
Opening the show was bluesman Robert Cray and his band. I’ve never had a chance to see Cray before, though I’ve always had a soft spot as his 1986 album Strong Persuader was the first blues record I ever heard.

It was in frequent rotation over the store PA at Sound Warehouse in Humble where was I working at time (shout out to my former manager Joel Cochran, who with his wife Tiffany today owns two locations of Volume Music—one in The Woodlands and one in Huntsville). From that, it was a short jump to the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Little Walter records in the “Blues” section.

So, it was with a bit of disappointment that Cray’s setlist didn’t include his best-known tune, “Smoking Gun,” a Billboard #22 singles hit. Imagine Jimmy Buffett not playing “Margaritaville” or…the Doobie Brothers dropping “Listen to the Music” from their set. Maybe Cray has some strong feelings about guns in 2024 he didn’t previously?

Nevertheless, his hour-long opening set was smoking enough, with Cray’s raw and emotional guitar work and a voice similarly untouched by time. Backing him were usual bandmembers drummer George “Sputnik” Sluppick, bassist Richard Cousins and keyboardist Dover “White Cliffs” Weinberg.

Highlights included more uptempo and groove-filled numbers like “I Shiver,” “Fix This,” “Phone Booth,” and “Enough for Me.” You could feel the audience’s attention drifting a bit during the slower material like “It Doesn’t Show” and “Deep in My Soul,” the latter a cover of the Bobby “Blue” Bland tune. Strong Persuader fans did get the record’s second best-known track, “Right Next Door (Because of Me).”

Now 70, Cray has perfectly made the transition from the “young gun” who made the well-regarded 1985 album Showdown! with then-elder Texas bluesmen Albert Collins and Houston’s Johnny “Clyde” Copeland. In fact, his own current tour is called “Groovin’ 50 Years.”

And he’s consistently put out great albums over the past decades, often dipping into soul and funk. Why he tends to get lost or overlooked among blues aficionados is something of a mystery. Though we know he does dig the Woodlands Pavilion for something he doesn’t always get elsewhere.

“A lot of venues don’t have AC on the stage when you tour outdoors,” he told the audience. “But you’ve got it here. So thank you very much!”

Set List
The Doobie Brothers

Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)
Here to Love You
Dependin’ on You
Rockin’ Down the Highway
You Belong to Me
Cannonball
It Keeps You Runnin’
Eyes of Silver
One Step Closer
World Gone Crazy
Minute by Minute
Without You
Jesus is Just Alright
What a Fool Believes
Long Train Runnin’
China Grove

Encore
Black Water
Takin’ It to the Streets
Listen to the Music

Robert Cray Band
The Moon is Full
I Shiver
You Can’t Make Me Change
Fix This
It Doesn’t Show
Phone Booth
Sittin’ on Top of the World
Enough for Me
Deep in My Soul
Right Next Door (Because of Me)
You Must Believe in Yourself
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero