ATLANTIC CITY - When you think of summer, you think of the sun, the sand ... and Steve Miller.
The San Francisco rocker's annual warm-season tours rank up there with other summer road regulars such as Dave Matthews, Tom Petty and Jimmy Buffett.
Saturday's stop in town was a major coup for the Atlantic City Hilton since most of Miller's yearly stops are in mid- to large-size outdoor amphitheaters. The sold-out Hilton crowd, mostly in their 40s and 50s, were treated to an intimate, rocking blast to the past as Miller unleashed his arsenal of hits.
Until you sit through a Steve Miller Band concert, you may not realize how many hits it has. Fortunately, the band is not afraid to play them - pretty much all of them. Unlike many bands that refuse to play its hits in favor of songs they prefer to play, Miller knows what his fans want to hear.
To get a good sense of how many hits Miller has - and how many he played Saturday - all you have to do is look at his greatest hits album that features 14 songs from 1974 to 1978, his most prolific and successful period. On Saturday, he played 11 of them, and even the casual fan would know most of them, including the opener "Jet Airliner" and the follow-ups, "Take the Money and Run" and "Mercury Blues."
Along the way, he played every hit the crowd expected: the mellow, catchy "Serenade"; the anthemic "Livin' in the USA," featuring a brilliant arrangement that showed off Miller's harmonica skills; his No. 1 smash "Rock'n Me"; and the encores "Swingtown," "Space Cowboy," "Jungle Love," "The Stake" and "Fly Like an Eagle."
That's not counting his No. 1 1981 hit "Abracadabra," a song that hasn't held up particularly well as a recording, but sounds spectacular live. It proved to be a huge favorite Saturday, with the crowd singing nearly every syllable.
The breadth of Miller's songwriting is quite astounding. And his interests as an artist are equally intriguing. Besides his hits, the 66-year-old gave the eager-to-learn audience a blues tutorial.
Playing against a cool backdrop that was like a psychedelic tornado of guitars, Miller, who looks like he's more in his mid-50s than 60s, showed why he is considered one of the most influential guitarists of the last four decades. While his guitars changed often, he mostly stuck to his more tinny Fender Stratocasters for his tunes, relying on Gibson Les Pauls for the bluesier parts of his setlist.
He played bluesy classics such as "Let the Good Times Roll," Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Further on Down the Road" and Muddy Waters' "Can't Be Satisfied," showing off his amazing guitar skills.
The veteran rocker's guitar virtuosity was equaled by the adeptness of his band. Interestingly enough, Miller didn't use a bassist, and was backed by a drummer, another guitarist and a keyboardist who played most of the bass lines. A highlight was Sonny Charles, the former lead singer of the Checkmates, who not only served as an above-average backup singer but fronted the band for some of the bluesier songs.
Miller, donning dark sunglasses for the entire show, also debuted some new songs that will from his latest CD "Bingo," which will be released Tuesday. But, like the true professional he is, Miller didn't overburden the set with songs that the crowd is unfamiliar with.
"Hey Yeah" and "Don't Cha Know" won't be making it on the radio anytime soon, but they showed Miller's continued ability to write catchy, bluesy tunes. And "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," a cover of Jessie Hill's classic, revealed his funky side and love of New Orleans.
The consummate showman, Miller also shared some cool stories, including one about his 12-string guitar that was lost by United Airlines that was returned to him — by the F.B.I. — three years later.
The only gripe might be the fact that he played arguably his biggest hit, "The Joker," acoustic style with his 12-string. While the crowd certainly was happy to hear the song, it would have been much more impressive with the full band.
The Steve Miller Band does not make regular stops in Atlantic City. After the positive and deserved reception it received Saturday, hopefully the band will make the town part of its annual summer treks.
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