Given the careerist bent of Steve Miller around the time of Live! Breaking Ground: August 3, 1977
, not to mention the popularity of concert releases in the wake of Frampton Comes Alive!
(A&M,1976), it is altogether surprising the Space Cowboy did not issue a formal concert album until 1983. Miller came back from a self-imposed hiatus following the surprise (and widespread) popularity of The Joker
(Capitol, 1973) with two smash albums in successive years, Fly Like An Eagle
(Capitol, 1976) and Book of Dreams
(Capitol, 1977), so the logical follow-up to those records would've been a document of his stage show during this same era to capitalize on his popularity.
But the guitarist/songwriter/bandleader's shows of the period nevertheless presented the first inklings of his offerings in later years, after his star had peaked and fallen, when he relegated his roadwork to summer tours of the open-air sheds and proffered all his hits and virtually nothing but the hits. Streamlined and polished to a fault, there remained at that point little room for spontaneity the likes of which made his setlists and performances thereof so true to his roots when he was supporting his aforementioned mainstream breakthrough in mid-decade.
As a result, there was/is little difference between live and studio culls in the late Seventies except for their running order, thereby rendering a live album a de facto 'Greatest Hits' package (the many likes of which were substitutes for new releases in the early days of nostalgia shows). Nearly a half-century later, however, with a vinyl resurgence in full flower, it only makes sense for Miller to hearken back to this period with Breaking Ground
, even if its availability carries some contradictions.
A variety of formats are available, including digital, CD and 2xLP black vinyl, while the accompanying concert video will be available for streaming. Yet even as the latter is posited as 'featuring the full performance,' the audio-only configurations include only seventeen selections from a total of twenty-three played this late summer evening. Fans of the man may or may not be dyed-in-the-wool completists, but even that demographic may carp at the cross-marketing, de rigueur as it is these days, at least before hearing the music played by a lineup fully-invested in its bond as a band by previous history in the studio as well as the road.
Befitting the title, the Steve Miller Band
appearing here is the core ensemble that appeared on the studio sessions of the era. Its most notable additionand one of the group's most longstanding members apart from original SMB bassist Lonnie Turner, also present happens to be native Californian harpist Norton Buffalo. His idiosyncratic but nonetheless ear-catching style of playing on "The Stake" augments its bluesy construct as much it lends warmth to the heady atmospherics of "The Window">"Winter Time:" the latter coupling is one of the most effective segues here in part because it immediately precedes the aforementioned modified twelve-bar.
The contributions of guitarists David Denny and Greg Douglass are worth noting as well. Their dual presence on the otherwise ever-so-slight "Rock 'n Me," to name just one selection, allows for the layering of acoustic and electric guitars so common on Miller's albums throughout his history, while the latter's facility with slide guitar during adds another sonic detail that dovetails with the harmonica of Buffalo and the multiple keyboards (including synthesizers) of Byron Allred so prominent on, appropriately enough, "Space Intro."
Ear candy as that brief instrumental interlude is, it is hardly so integral to the sound of this septet as the multi-layered vocal harmonies. Not surprisingly a touch-point of well-known tunes like "Take The Money And Run" and "Jet Airliner," the full-throated group singing also elevates the momentum of "Serenade" as well as the vintage likes of "Living in the USA" and "Space Cowboy." And those numbers, so wisely utilized to open the show, ordain the historical focus here furthered by "The Joker" and even more so "Seasons" from Miller's third studio album Brave New World
As careful as he has always been to share credit with his accompanistshe's rarely if ever billed under solely his own nameSteve Miller has also made it a longstanding custom to tailor his concerts to a purpose (see the spring 1974 Tour with his kindred spirits James Cotton
and Boz Scaggs). And so it is with Live! Breaking Ground August 3,1977
: not only does the release recapitulate the most successful phase of his career, albeit in truncated form, it reinforces the musicianly values that simultaneously underscore and transcend its commercial attraction(s).
Living In The U.S.A.; Space Cowboy; Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma; Come On In My Kitchen; Wild Mountain Honey; The Window/Winter Time; The Stake; Mercury Blues; Serenade; Take The Money And Run; Jet Airliner; Space Intro; Fly Like An Eagle; Rock'n Me; The Joker; Seasons; So Long Blues.
Steve Miller: guitar, background vocals; Norton Buffalo: background vocals; David Denny: background Vocals; Greg Douglass: guitar; Byron Allred: keyboards; Lonnie Turner: bass; Gary Mallaber: drums.