The Doobie Brothers are still on the freeway after 51 years, despite four of the group members having been stricken with COVID-19.
“We’re back to work, but it’s a weird time for anyone doing this,” said Tom Johnston, singer, guitarist and co-founder of Doobies. “The option is not to go on tour. A lot of people have chosen that option.”
With or without a pandemic, the longevity of the Doobies is a happy surprise to Johnston, 73.
“When we started we didn’t even know what was going to happen the next day!” Johnston called back.
“How does a band know that? You’re just trying to pull yourself together and move on. At the start of this band, we hadn’t done anything yet and were playing in bars like everyone else. we did a demo. It got us a recording deal with Warner Bros. Our first album didn’t sell, but the second did. And the rest is history. “
Indeed, it is for the Doobies, whose 19th album, “Liberte”, was released earlier this month. The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year, albeit virtually due to COVID-19, and are now starting their 50th anniversary tour – a year later due to the shutdown of live events caused by the pandemic.
A major commercial force in the 1970s, the Doobies won gold and platinum with their radio mix of rock, blues, gospel and soul. The band has sold over 48 million albums and recorded 16 top 40 hits, thanks to audience favorites such as “Jesus Is Just Alright”, “Black Water”, “Long Train Runnin ‘”, “Listen to the Music “and – after Steely Dan alumnus Michael McDonald has joined us -” What a Fool Believes “and” Minute By Minute “.
Some of these songs became covers of choice for bar bands in the 1970s, including a Missouri ensemble that included the future singer and keyboardist of the McDonald’s Doobies. He replaced Johnston in the formation of the Doobies in 1975. Johnston returned for the band’s farewell tour in 1982 and has been a fixture of the band since its reunion in 1987.
“I had played Doobies material for years at nightclubs before joining the band,” McDonald said in an interview with San Diego Union in 1987. “They were a major force in music.”
Two of the Doobies’ co-founders, Johnston and fellow singer-guitarist Patrick Simmons, are still on board today. The same goes for ace guitarist John McFee, who joined the band in 1979. The band’s lineup now also includes veteran Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne and former Yellowjackets saxophonist Marc Russo, who brings a jazzy boost to some of the band’s music.
McDonald’s joined the 50th anniversary tour, but missed several performances in early September after being diagnosed with COVID-19. He is now back in the fold.
Guitarist McFee and saxophonist Russo also had COVID, said Johnston, who – in early 2020 – was the first member of the Doobies to contract the potentially fatal disease.
“You really, really have to adhere to COVID protocols to tour,” said Johnston, speaking from Los Angeles last month. “Even if you join, it still happens. If you’re really buttoned up, don’t leave your hotel room until the concert, wear a mask all the time until you go on stage, then put the mask back on when get off the stage – and stay in a bubble – it can work.
“It is imperative that you do this and that you have no contact outside of the bubble. This is the only way to turn. We have had group members who have fallen ill with COVID. Without going into an explanation long haul, I think I know where they got sick; you’re not supposed to go to restaurants or bars.
“You can go back and forth about who is wearing masks or not, and I won’t go into detail here. But it really makes it a risky situation when people don’t. As long as you’re wearing your masks. and isolate when you “I’m not playing, you should be fine. It’s good to go for a walk, but not to hang out with people. And, of course, various parts of the country are more active than others. So we have to isolate ourselves. “
But how can the nine touring members of the Doobies isolate on tour buses, what mode of transportation the group uses for most of their concerts on their 50th anniversary?
“Well, everyone’s wearing a mask, on and off the bus. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s about the gist,” Johnston replied.
“Everyone washes their hands regularly. I don’t think anyone got sick on a bus. I think it was contact with other musicians (at concerts) or walking into a bar or a restaurant. Everything’s shut down now and I don’t think it would happen again for any of us to get sick. I would be very, very unhappy if that was the case, because that means we would have to stop filming. “
For their current tour, the Doobies perform 29 songs for two and a half hours each night. It’s a record for the veteran group.
The same is true of the speed with which the Doobies recorded their new album, “Liberte”, which was produced and co-written by John Shanks of Bon Jovi. Her previous songwriting and production credits range from Alanis Morissette, Van Halen and Stevie Nicks to Bonnie Raitt, Keith Urban and Hilary Duff.
With a dozen songs, “Liberte” is the first album by Doobies that – because of the pandemic – the group has produced without its members being face to face to write and record the songs.
“It was done very quickly, although that doesn’t mean it was the best way to do anything,” said Johnston, who co-wrote seven of the songs on the new album with Shanks.