Let the Music Play is subtitled “The Story of the Doobie Brothers,” and in keeping traces their oft-told journey from boogie-rock band to sleek soul-popsters and back. Most interesting of all, however, might be this DVD’s 48 minutes of rare live performances.
The project, co-written and directed by Barry Ehrmann, was sparked by the discovery of a treasure trove of film and tape from throughout the band’s career buried inside a store container owned by guitarist Patrick Simmons in Santa Rosa, California. Ehrmann, who originally produced the Doobie Brothers’ 1982 farewell concert with second-era frontman Michael McDonald, immediately set about constructing this serpentine, yet always engaging narrative.
Still, they’re not exactly covering new ground. That comes with the in-concert footage, rare and uncut, which — though tacked on after the documentary concludes — ended up as the most galvanizing element of Let the Music Play for me.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Michael McDonald's 2010 concert release 'This Christmas' included plenty of yuletide favorites, but also a series of intriguing reexaminations of his best-known songs with the Doobies.]
Ehrmann starts with “Rainy Day Crossroad Blues,” which finds original (and now current) frontman Tom Johnston sitting shaggy-haired and shirtless on a back patio by the pool, running through the song on an acoustic. Simmons, a steady presence through every edition of the Doobies, adds a down-home rhythm by patting his jean-clad thighs. “Without You,” meanwhile, shifts to the full band playing in all of its howling, groove-tastic glory — but, interestingly, at this tiny club. Waitresses walk by with drink orders, while Johnston and Co. set this tune ablaze.
“Listen to the Music” places the Doobie Brothers before a boisterous arena crowd, a little more cleaned up but — with the addition of a honking horn section — somehow swampier still. Simmons’ timeless “Black Water” begins as a stripped-down, far more contemplative reading, despite likewise being performed before thousands in a sports stadium, before Skunk Baxter’s searching guitar solo lifts the song into its familiar good-time cadence.
“Taking it to the Streets,” marking the first appearance from McDonald, features the Doobie Brothers at a still larger venue — in keeping with their evolution toward pop-chart juggernauts. The band approaches this early example of McDonald’s city-slicker R&B with a grittier attitude than ever made its way onto the studio recordings, however, and Baxter’s solo is a soaring, searing delight.
“Rocking Down the Highway,” performing at Memorial Day concert emceed by the legendary promoter Bill Graham, fast forwards into the band’s third incarnation — with a returning Johnson’s shorn locks as the most obvious signpost. Still, a frontline that also includes Simmons, Baxter and the late Cornelius Bumpus, does much to recapture the original energy and power of this chugging track. The fleet, Simmons-sung “Neal’s Fandango,” from the same 1980s-era show, sends Johnston into a celebratory dance, so visceral is their reconnection.
A live take on “Long Train Runnin’” brings the set out of the videotape age, with Johnston whooping it up alongside Simmons, the late longtime Doobies drummer Michael Hossack, John McFee and others. Finally, there’s “China Grove,” from the same show, which is — as it always has been — a revved-up send off.