Like that worn but dependable pair of shoes that you’d never throw away. Like that shirt that still fits just right. The ol’ reliables.
That’s Marty Stuart and Steve Miller, a pair of comfortably-entrenched legacy musicians from entirely different sides of the musical tracks who kicked off a 34-date tour Thursday night to a sparse but appreciative crowd at Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena.
Backed by his aptly-named band, The Fabulous Superlatives, the always silver-maned Stuart is a throwback to an era when country music consisted of more than a pickup truck, a tailgate and case of beer. The 60-year-old revered instrumentalist is a an eclectic mix, from his set-opening and surf-sounding instrumental, “La Tingo Tango, “ (the theme song from his popular television show), to gospel (“Angels Rock Me To Sleep”) and mainstream (“Whiskey Ain’t Working Here No More,” his duet with Travis Tritt in 1991).
Though his set was just 45 minutes in length, kudos goes to Stuart for his willingness to put the talents of his stage mates Kenny Vaughn (guitar), Harry Stinson (drums) and Chris Scruggs (bass) on display as well.
Vaughn stepped to the mic and delivered a knee-slapping version of “Country Music Got A Hold On Me,” as did Stinson on the cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” Scruggs, the grandson of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, was right, tight and in the pocket on the driving “Time Don’t Wait,” switching to standup bass on “Pretty Boy Floyd.”
Stuart grabbed his mandolin for an excellent rendition of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” which featured outstanding four part-harmony vocals with the band. He then stuck with the instrument, taking the spotlight on his own during a ripping mandolin arrangement of Ervin Rouse’s “Orange Blossom Special.”
“That’s all I got!” He said breathlessly afterward.
The 75-year-old Miller closed the night with everything you’d expect from him — sans the grit. The rougher, rocking edges of Miller’s heyday in the 1970s have been smoothened a bit by age, as was shown during the almost reggae-like lyrical delivery of “Abracadabra” and “Space Cowboy,” a song now more than 50 years old.
That’s not to say the years have been unkind to Miller. His range is still basically intact, as is his playing ability. Some of the songs now feature a slightly different feel, likely in thanks to Miller’s late-career immersion into the study of Delta blues, which came were heard via an extended guitar solo in “Living In The USA.”
That’s not to say he’s abandoned the ship that got him there, however. Miller still delivers “Jungle Love,” “Dance, Dance, Dance” (featuring a fantastic solo by keyboardist Joseph Wooten), and “Fly Like And Eagle” note-for-note.
One of the lighter moments during the night occurred when Miller told the story of how he came to own the sitar used on the psychedelic sounding and trippy “Wild Mountain Honey.”
“I got this in 1960s when I was on a show called “Hullabaloo” with The Supremes and The Four Tops. I wanted to buy a Les Paul at Manny’s (a long-famous music store in New York City, which has now closed). On the way out, I saw a barrel with a sign that said, ‘Your choice. $150.’ It had a bunch of necks sticking out. I pulled this out, with its purple alligator skin, 19 strings, pick guard mounted on a spring, and of course, a mirror on the back,” he recalled as the audience laughed with him.
The remainder of the set was pure 70s FM rock, with “Take The Money And Run,” “Swingtown,” “Rock’n Me,” and a second encore of “The Joker” (introduction courtesy of a video of cartoon character Homer Simpson driving a car singing the song’s lyrics about being a gangster of love) and arguably his most recognizable and popular song, “Jet Airliner.”
Outside of the usual few opening night of the tour sound hiccups, it was a smooth three hours of good music.
Just like we knew it would be.
Marty Stuart and Steve Miller. The ol’ reliables.