Boz Scaggs Gives The Dirty Lowdown

By Rob Cullivan - Portland Tribune

Along with Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, Ambrosia and other acts, Boz Scaggs is one of those performers whose middle-of-the-road sound defined pop culture in the 1970s.

A veteran of one of the earlier incarnations of the Steve Miller Band, Scaggs set out on his own in 1968, and ruled the charts in the mid-’70s when his eminently classy album “Silk Degrees” — which featured future members of Toto — was released. The guitarist-singer has no problem embracing his past.

“A good deal of what we deal with is connecting with the audience,” he says of his live shows. “When ‘Lowdown’ comes on or ‘Lido Shuffle’ comes on, people really react.”

In addition to those tunes, Scaggs has an extensive repertoire of hits from which to pick and choose a set, including “Breakdown Dead Ahead” and “Jojo” from the album “Middle Man,” as well as “Look What You’ve Done to Me” from the 1980 soundtrack to “Urban Cowboy.” But that doesn’t mean he always plays every one of his hits.

“If a song gets a tired feeling we just drop it,” he says. Nonetheless, his band believes in giving the people what they want.

“I really love seeing them do it,” he says of an audience getting excited when he hits the opening chords of a hit. “It really connects me with them.”

Scaggs will be bringing a seven-piece band, including himself, to Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Tuesday, June 11. But he’s not just on the road to nudge nostalgic feelings from his audience — he’s pushing a new critically acclaimed record called “Memphis,” which is a bit grittier than casual fans of Scaggs might be used to hearing, although it certainly features some smooth material as well.

“At this point we’re playing a number of things from our new album and a smattering of hits,” he says. “It’s a mixed bag.”

Scaggs says he’s been wanting to make a record with Steve Jordan — probably best known to contemporary audiences for his drumming with John Mayer — for years and “Memphis” is the fulfillment of that wish.

“We both love classic rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues,” Scaggs says. “We never discussed what kind of music it would be. It just seemed sort of apparent to us that it was to be a sort of rootsy groove.”

Along with Ray Parker, Jr., Willie Weeks, Spooner Oldham and Charles Hodges, Scaggs and Jordan recorded “Memphis” in the Tennessee city’s famed Royal Studios, once the recording home to such soul legends as Al Green and bluesman Bobby “Blue” Bland, not to mention Ike and Tina Turner and Otis Rush. Standout cuts on the mostly covers outing include the swampy “Dry Spell” and the lovely “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl.”

“We did the basic tracks in three days,” Scaggs says, noting the record was then polished within a few months. The band is excited to be playing new material, he adds. “We’re still learning it every night.”

When not out on the road doing his own thing, Scaggs can be heard with the Dukes of September, featuring Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers’ fame as well as Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. Jamming with McDonald and Fagen gives Scaggs a chance to be a sideman, he adds, noting the trio was filmed for a PBS special that will air later this year.

“I just have the highest respect for each of them individually,” Scaggs says. “I love this collaboration that we’ve got.”

On that note, Scaggs advises up-and-coming musicians to keep plugging away if they want to build an audience.

“Play live in front of people as much as you can,” he says. “Do it for free, do it any way you can. There’s nothing like getting on stage and trying out what you’re doing in front of people. It will shape and direct you more than anything you do.”

As for the future, Scaggs says he hopes his loyal fans will dig “Memphis.”

“I’ve been writing songs and making records for quite a long time,” he says. “It’s just a continuation of my career.”

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