A look inside the American rock legend’s rarities-packed new box set
Artist: Steve Miller Band
Album: Welcome to the Vault
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Now, this is how you put together a box set for your fans, Steve Miller.
Three CDs, with 75 percent of the material previously unreleased. Add a DVD, and package them all in a hardbound, 100-page book. There’s some souvenirs tucked inside — a poster, postcards, a backstage pass, guitar picks — which are fun, but superfluous. But that’s okay; the rest of the set features a nice assortment of goods.
Though best known for classic rock staples like “Rock’n Me,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” and “Abracadabra” (all which can be found on this set in one form or another), Miller’s real affinity was for the blues. His first recording, the single “The Mother Song,” was credited to the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band, and when he landed in San Francisco in 1966, he was initially still carrying the banner as the Steve Miller Blues Band. And that’s the starting point of Welcome to the Vault, which kicks off with a ten-minute live take on Little Walter’s “Blues with a Feeling,” captured one night at the Fillmore West in 1969, Miller unfurling his guitar technique to an appreciative audience.
Miller had been playing in bands since 1955, and certainly had the musical chops. He burns through Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” ably backs Chuck Berry on Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too” when Berry recorded Live at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1967, and “Super Shuffle” does just that. But while he can play the blues, Miller doesn’t have the best voice for the blues; it’s too clean, too sweet. Miller soon dropped “Blues” from his band name, going for broader appeal. And you can hear on the early single, “Living in the U.S.A.,” how Miller began incorporating blues as just one aspect of a song; in this case, the honking harmonica helps the song achieve liftoff, whereupon it then veers in a more straight ahead rock direction (with a touch of trippy organ).
Five long years after “Living in the U.S.A.,” Miller finally had a solid hit with “The Joker,” a lazy, laidback tune about a charming rascal that has Miller mythologizing his own history, with lyrics referencing his earlier songs “Space Cowboy,” “Gangster of Love,” and “Enter Maurice.” The success of the single, and the album of the same name, allowed Miller to take his time with the follow up. “I wanted to make a record that people couldn’t take off the turntable,” he says in Vault’s liner notes, and the set shows the work it took to get there.
VIDEO: Steve Miller Band “The Joker” 1973
The two alternate versions of “Rock’n Me” show him experimenting with the tempo, in one version layering on the harmonies for a chorus that he plays over and over and over, mantra-like, for well over a minute, unlike the quicker fadeout on the released version. The other take is closer to that final version, but looser and freer. An earlier version of “Fly Like an Eagle” from 1974 has a substantially funkier beat, and is more overtly political from the start, opening with the verse “What about the people/no shoes on their feet/What about the children/who don’t get enough to eat,” and only one verse about time slippin’ slippin’ slippin’ into the future, tucked well into the song. In the final, slicker version, the song opens with the “slippin’” verse, making the yearning to fly something more mystical, as opposed to a desire to escape a world blighted with poverty — a decision that of course makes it more commercial. Early versions of “Jet Airliner” and “Swingtown” also demonstrate how carefully Miller honed his material to find the sweet spot that made them instantly catchy and immediately recognizable when you heard them a second time.
AUDIO: Steve Miller Band “Fly Like An Eagle” (alternate version)
Fly Like an Eagle (1976) and Book of Dreams (1977) represent Miller’s commercial peak, and the bulk of this set is drawn from the 1970s. But there are nods to his later work as well, like a rare three-minute edit of “Macho City,” a searing track attacking unchecked aggression and hypocrisy. There’s also a handful of previously unreleased songs. “Hesitation Blues” is a short acoustic number with pretty harmonies. “That’s the Way It’s Got to Be” is a playful jam that has Miller chuckling at one point, “My mother, she told me, she said, ‘Steve, when you start fuckin’ around in a recording session, that’s the time to go home!’”
The DVD provides more treats. Most impressive is an 11-song set from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert from 1973. The audience actually stands up, hands on their hearts, during the opening salvo of “The Star-Spangled Banner”; Miller also unveils a tough version of “Fly Like an Eagle,” not yet recorded at that point (after announcing the title, an audience member shouts out an encouraging “Right on!”). Elsewhere, Miller is seen sharing lead vocals on a sizzling “Just a Little Bit” with James Cotton in 1974, and trading licks with Les Paul in 1990 (“You taught me everything I know,” he tells Paul respectfully; “If you’d looked, you’d have learned!” Paul cracks in response).
The set closes with another reaffirmation of Miller’s love for the blues. First comes a home recording from 1951 of T-Bone Walker playing his own “Lollie Lou,” recorded by Miller’s father, Steve, in the family living room in Dallas (the Millers were acquainted with numerous musicians, who often dropped by for a visit while they were on tour). That’s followed by Miller’s own performance of the song some 60 years later, live from Lincoln Center, delivering the lovelorn lyrics in a dreamy croon. And this promises to be just the beginning of such excavations; the liner notes state that the Vault is the first release “in a long-term plan of archival projects.”
AUDIO: Steve Miller Band Welcome to the Vault (full album)