Hate Bob Seger? There's an AP for that. But if you're less inimical toward the Bard of Motor City than my colleague AP Kryza—whose commentary on Seger in a recent WW offered the excuse that the rocker's music was force-fed him as a Michigan native—then Saturday night's show at the Rose Garden Arena would certainly have impressed. I've always respected the man, and loved his weightier songs while tolerating the overly-familiar ones with "Rock and Roll" in the title, but I'm not a “deep album cut” kind of fan, so it was good to finally see him in his element as one of the medium’s legendary live performers.
Storming out of the gate with John Hiatt's "Detroit Made"—a cover as perfect for Seger as Tom Waits' "Jersey Girl" was for Bruce Springsteen—Seger showed almost none of the wear and tear of his 67 years. Not until the end of the night, anyway, but more about that later.
Seger deserves a better rep than he has. It's been hampered by his unprolific record over the past several decades. His last truly great album was 1982's The Distance, and he's released only four collections of new songs in the 31 years since. He resolutely refuses to remaster, repackage or reissue his older studio work like so many others have—certainly a more working-class ethic than many of his double-dip demanding, faux-proletariat peers (although his iconic Live Bullet album was indeed re-released in 2011). Every time Springsteen puts out a new album, or recycles an old one, his reputation's burnished by a fresh flurry of hagiographic press clippings, while Seger survives in the public consciousness mostly as a raw voice on some dozen classic rock staples—or worse, an incitement for Tom Cruise to dance in his underwear.
But there were a great many in the arena on Saturday for whom Seger is clearly the be all and end all, and they ate up his every fist-pump and head-throwback like the gestures of a papal blessing. The show's most intense moment came late in the game with one of Seger's earliest signature songs, "Turn the Page," when a good-sized portion of the mostly full house hauntingly sang along to every word. Having served just as long, saxman and onstage foil Alto Reed played an equally stirring solo.
Seger was dressed in all-black, including a black headband set off against his shock-white hair and beard. In the most obvious reminder of his advanced age, he was bespectacled through the night. His voice was strong, and its characteristic rasp served to hide much of whatever deterioration time has caused it, but of course it wasn't quite the mic-shredding instrument of yore. He spent most of the show attacking his own songs and a handful of R&B covers while striding the stage holding a microphone, only occasionally standing stationary with an electric guitar or sitting stage-right on the keys, with a bit more time seated front-and-center with an acoustic. There, he performed the one new composition he shared, "All the Roads," which treaded familiar Seger territory both musically and lyrically but was welcome nonetheless.
He followed that with a song he said he and the Silver Bullet Band— which was tight and hearty as ever throughout the show, if seldom featuring impressive soloing—hadn't performed in some 29 years: the Chevy-spoiled "Like a Rock." During the aforementioned long creative drought, its residuals no doubt kept Seger's coffers filled, and it was good to hear the song played sincerely again, forgiven its commercial context. Another acoustic surprise was a cover of the Woody Guthrie-penned "California Stars"—featured on Mermaid Avenue, a 1998 album of unreleased Guthrie tunes recorded by Wilco and Billy Bragg—which Seger explained he heard on the radio and immediately felt the need to cover, proof of the man's undimmed love of good music.
Those seated spells were no doubt sprinkled throughout the set to afford the old-timer a chance to catch his breath, but that only worked for so long. From the time he stood up from the keys after the aforementioned "Turn the Page," it was clear the man's energy was seriously flagging. Sure, he convincingly rocked through set-closers "Sunspot Baby" and "Katmandu" and encore rockers "Hollywood Nights" and "Rock and Roll Never Forgets," but a bit less stridently than earlier in the evening, and with notably less stage patter. The slower numbers in the encore, "Against the Wind" and (‘natch) "Night Moves," suffered from his fatigue. Sure, he's played them thousands of times, but surely so he had with several other songs earlier in the night which nonetheless sacrificed no intensity. Here, he just seemed tired, dispiritedly strumming, with not much oomph behind the singing, either.
A brief chat with Seger's manager of 50 years, Punch Andrews, at an after show gathering revealed the reason for the winded wind-up of the show: Before this tour, Andrews had booked the aging star's tours allowing for at least one night off between gigs. Seger convinced him he was in great shape and could handle some consecutive performances. Andrews regretted taking Seger at his over-enthusiastic word, as, following the previous night's Seattle show, he clearly wasn't able to sustain his energy all the way through the entire Portland date.
Still, Seger clearly left whatever he did have in him on the Rose Garden stage, so we could hardly complain. (Yeah, but I'd waited my whole life to hear a live "Against the Wind!") The dedication he and the band displayed, and the undeniable quality of his material, proved that he deserves a more prominent place in the rock pantheon than he's been granted thus far—and, perhaps, a more charitable re-evaluation from the likes of our man AP—though, for many in attendance, he clearly outshines all the rest.