‘Tis the season of summer, which also means it’s the time of the year for the increasingly popular Classic Rock Package Tour. It really is a win-win for both sides. Fans get to see two or three like-minded acts from the same era on the same bill, bands get to play for larger audiences, and maybe – just maybe – create some new fans. That, and sell a few more post-show Greatest Hits CDs in the process.
Still, Toto guitarist/singer Steve Lukather knows that his band’s split bill with prog-rock giants Yes might raise some eyebrows among the latter’s exacting (and, assumedly, brainy) acolytes.
“I know some people are going, ‘I don’t know. Toto with ‘Rosanna’ and ‘Africa?’ Is this shit going to work? I fucking hate 'Africa!’” he says, in mock voice of disgust.
“But if you go deeper into our catalogue, you’ll find there’s a little bit more to it, and the [bands] are a lot closer than you think," he continues. "All of us love prog-rock and bands like Gentle Giant. And some of us have worked with those guys from Yes before, so there is a connection. [Yes guitarist] Steve Howe is a huge influence on me. I used to line up to buy tickets to see those Yes tours when I was in high school.”
And indeed, Lukather is right. For while best known for ‘70s/’80s hits like “99,” “Hold the Line,” “I Won’t Hold You Back” and — yes — “Rosanna” and “Africa,” a deeper listen to Toto's catalogue does deliver proggier and harder rock material. The current lineup includes original members Lukather, keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro, and — returning after many years away — original bassist David Hungate. Along with Joseph Williams (vocals), Shannon Forrest (drums), Lenny Castro (percussion) and two backup singers.
The band of well-versed studio and stage musicians came together when several of them worked with Boz Scaggs on the Silk Degrees record (Paich co-wrote much of the record) and subsequent tour. “I was 19 when I went on that tour!", Lukather says. "If it wasn’t for Boz, there probably wouldn’t be a Toto.”
Deciding to form a band, they released debut Toto in 1978.
Earlier this year, the band dropped Toto XIV, their first studio effort in nearly a decade. And indeed, the tracks sound more prog than pop, and a surprising number tackle social and political issues (plus the occasional power ballad). The 57-year-old Lukather says that it’s not what the band consciously set out to do, but speaks to the evolution of, well, their lives.
“Imagine us! Older men wanting to talk about something beside getting high and going to the club and getting girls," he offers. "We’ve lived through all that shit already.
“We didn’t set it up to get topical, but it happened," Lukather adds. "You wake up, get a cup of coffee, turn on the computer and...boom! The bad news begins! We’ve lived through death, destruction, divorce, children, [and] various addictions, and we are still here. So we write about what’s going on now, not just goofy lyrics to wrap around guitar solos. Which we have done in the past!”
One of the record’s key tracks is “Holy War,” whose subject matter is not exactly hidden, nor is Lukather’s distaste for its presence and provocateurs. That said, in actual conversation he doesn't come off nearly as angry as his words will look in print here. More like exasperated
“We live in Dick Cheney’s world where war is money and destruction of people is good," he says. "I mean, the war in Afghanistan. Has anybody ever won that? Why do we keep slamming our heads against the wall?
“I don’t think if Jesus came down from the sky and looked at he world right now he’d be very pleased at what is going on," adds Lukather. "He’d be like, ‘what the fuck are you guys doing down there?’ And that’s nondenominational.”
For the song “Unknown Soldier (For Jeffrey),” Toto turns its attention toward the aftereffects of conflicts and the people caught up in them. And while Lukather says he is squarely on the “peace and love” side of things, he does hail from a military family with an ex-Marine father and uncle who served in Vietnam.
“I saw what war did to my uncle. He was a hopeless alcoholic because of what he saw over there,” Lukather says. “I have the deepest respect for our troops who serve us. But I wonder what the end result is sometimes.”
Finally, the sometimes sorry state of Planet Earth also gets attention in “Running Out of Time.”
“I live in California, where we have a really gnarly drought and they still have money for trillions of gallons of water for fracking,” the guitarist says, his voice rising into sarcasm. “Fracking on a fault line where there are nuclear plants next to the ocean…just seems like a bad idea to me. What could possibly go wrong?”
At one point in their career, Toto was almost a brother act, boasting not only Steve Porcaro, but two of his siblings: Jeff on drums and Mike on bass.
Jeff Porcaro died in 1992 at the age of 38 after spraying insecticide at his home — though there is much discrepancy among family, band members, and the official coroner’s report as to the actual cause or causes. Mike passed in March of this year from the affects of ALS, years after retiring from the group in 2007 upon being first diagnosed with the disease.
Lukather was with Porcaro the day before he died, and says the situation has been the catalyst for a lot of reflection on his part.
“Mike used to say, ‘I’m melting,’ and it was hard to watch somebody go through that," he says. "He could barely suck in some air to breathe the last time I saw him. ALS is the most cruel, horrendous, and vicious disease.
“And his poor parents," Lukather continues. "And Steve and his sister. To have two brothers die from the same family? That’s not supposed to happen. I have four kids, and if I had to bury two of them, I’d never smile again. But nobody wanted him to suffer anymore. You wouldn’t do that to an animal, much less a human being.”
So Lukather takes the tack of keeping the literal band of brothers’ music going both with Toto and his inclusion playing group’s hits with Ringo Starr and His All-Star Band, as he did last October at the Woodlands Pavilion.
After the current Yes/Toto show wraps up, Lukather will join Ringo for more touring this fall, followed by an overseas trip with Toto. Asked what it’s like performing every night with the now 75-year-old Beatle, Lukather still gushes like the teenaged Fabs fan he once was.
“I really love that man," he offers. "I’m so happy for all the goodness in his life, and I’m a better person for knowing him. The Beatles are why I play music, and I have also played with Paul and George. So it’s come full circle."
“But sometimes I forget! I turn around and go, ‘Oh, that’s RINGO playing drums. He’s everything you would want him to be. And more.”
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As for Texas, Lukather has “fond memories of insanely beautiful women” and notes he had “outrageous parties” in the state. Though he is also quick to point out that, as a “reformed” person, he won’t be partying as in the old days this time around.
And while this interview was conducted before the death of Chris Squire — the sole remaining original member of Yes still with the group — Lukather feels that the band’s fans will nonetheless click during each of its respective 90-minute sets.
“Some of our fans are going, ‘What the fuck?’ And some of their fans are going, ‘What the fuck?’” he sums up. “But I think we’re both going to win over each other’s respective crowds. Especially if they come with an open mind.”
Yes and Toto play Tuesday night at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands. Gates open at 7 p.m.