Remembered these days--if he's remembered at all--for his mid-70's streak of Top 40 hits, Steve Miller nonetheless cuts a much larger swath through la historia de la musica rock for the records he made before he made those hits: seven albums* that with only one exception superbly expound upon the San Francisco psychedelic blues sound of the late sixties and early seventies.
Even those familiar only with Miller's Top 40 phase know that he was never shy with the bragadoccio and the self-promotion. I remember reading an interview wherein Miller boldly claims that his band was the best live band in the San Francisco scene of the time simply because they were the least drug-addled, and therefore put on the most professional shows.
I don't know about that.
One, I wasn't there, and two, at the very least, the first Miller album, Children of the Future, shows ample evidence of drug use itself.
But I do know that of all the bands that hailed from the whole Haight-Ashbury thing, the Steve Miller Band are my by far my favorite. I think that's because as All Music Guide says, they were "influenced but not overpowered by psychedelia."
Maybe what AMG writes gets back to what Miller himself was saying, or maybe it simply means that if you're gonna do the psychedelic thing, it'll serve you well to have a grounding rod, something to keep the whole thing from floating away on wispy, incorporeal waves of etherea. And Miller, unlike Jerry Garcia or Paul Kantner or most of the rest of them, had himself an education in the blues to do this, having been taught aspects of blues guitar by T-Bone Walker, and having played it with Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Paul Butterfield.
Miller played the blues in Texas and in Chicago before he ever even got to 'Frisco, and perhaps that's why albums like Children of the Future and Sailor feel so solid: they are amalgams of the styles of more than one place, rather than relying exclusively on the hippie dream.
For its part, "Key to the Highway" is solidly Chicago, and is in all respects a stunning cover of the Big Bill Broonzy standard. In it, Miller proves to have an uncanny knack for the slow blues, both through his sorrowful vocals that seemingly bleed tragedy, and through the spacious harmonica solo that begins at 3:00. That solo is a sort of a microcosm of the whole song: it is as remarkable for the introspection shown in what it doesn't try to do as for what it does. And you can say the same thing about Jim Peterman's gorgeous Hammond organ work.
Not that I don't love the busy, jam-heavy interpretations of the blues exemplified by Cream's version of "I'm So Glad," but the Steve Miller Band shows us with "Key to the Highway" that there's more than one way to play the blues for a rock audience, one that loses nothing in immediacy for all its authenticity.
Miller would do it again on 1969's Your Saving Grace, with the traditional "Motherless Children." Like with "Key to the Highway," "Motherless Children" would, after being recorded by Miller, end up getting redone by Eric Clapton. For those unsure about Miller's place in the rock pantheon, it is interesting to note that in both cases, Miller's versions are one-third as slow as Clapton's, and about twice as good.
Steve Miller Band - Children of the Future - 11 - Key to the Highway.mp3
This file was removed March 17, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.
File under:San Francisco Blues
*Children of the Future, Sailor, Brave New World, Your Saving Grace, Number 5, Rock Love, and Recall the Beginning . . . A Journey from Eden. Rock Love is the one that's not worth bothering with. It's not on CD, and neither is Recall the Beginning . . . (Back)