The sky turned a warm golden color, and a persistent rain slowed to a gentle sprinkle as classic rock maestro Steve Miller strummed a guitar equipped with a mini-harpsichord for the opening notes of “Wild Mountain Honey.”
Minutes later, a rainbow formed over pleasure boats anchored near the Duluth harbor stage.
Only halfway through his show, and Miller had already orchestrated a scene worthy of a double-live album gate-fold cover.
The Steve Miller Band turned a rainy night into a delightful electric blues clinic and Top 40 fun show for a few thousand fans at Bayfront Festival Park on Sunday. The 90-minute performance featured a 16-song set that leaned heavily on the group’s two hit records, “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Book of Dreams.”
Miller, with an ever-changing, four-piece band behind him, has recorded and performed for more than 50 years. At age 75, he looks fit in a black T-shirt, jeans and cowboy boots and carries the same solid but not smashing voice he rode to stardom in the 1970s.
But with Miller, the look and the voice doesn’t really matter — it’s all about the guitar.
For song after song, cameras feeding a behind-the-stage big screen focused on Miller’s hands as they raced up and down the neck of his Fender guitar. A hard-rocking “wha-wha” on show opener “The Stake.” A zippy, slip-slide solo on “Abracadabra” and an extended jam on “Living in the U.S.A.,” a song dedicated to members of the nation’s armed forces.
Seven songs into the show, Miller discussed rock ’n’ and roll history and its connections to musicians in the Mississippi Delta, Texas plains and south side of Chicago. He even name-checked “your cousin Bob Dylan” before covering a classic blues song by slide guitar master Elmore James.
Again, Miller and his clean, ringing guitar work sparkled.
Mixing it up, Miller played acoustic guitar on the country ditty “Dance, Dance, Dance.” The band then got jammy with spacey organ solos and “tick, tock, tick” background vocals on the song “Fly Like and Eagle,” from the 1976 album of the same name.
The joyful “Rock’n Me,” a No. 1 hit also from 1976, got the audience standing to close the main set.
The three-song encore featured “The Joker,” a show highlight. Miller played the song’s signature cat-call whistle on an aqua blue, sequin-studded guitar backed by a 12-string acoustic. The tune was more mellow than rowdy, designed for the sailboats anchored in the water rather than the frat boys near the beer tent.
“Jet Airliner,” from the 1977 “Book of Dreams” album, ended the night and brought a huge roar from an audience old enough to remember airports without metal detectors.
Country singer, guitarist and mandolin player Marty Stuart opened the evening with a 75-minute performance that was every bit as masterful and roots-reverent as the Steve Miller Band.
With a three-piece backing band dressed in powder blue suits called the Fabulous Superlatives, Stuart mixed his own hits like “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’” and “Tempted,” both from 1991, with songs from his most recent release, “Way Out West.” The group also took turns singing revved-up versions of old-time country hits.
“According to the newspaper, this show was being billed as classic country meets classic rock,” he told the audience. “Let’s do a classic country song. How about a Johnny Cash song? What do you want to hear? I know them all. I was in his band.”
“Ring of Fire” followed with the audience singing along to every note.
Mark Nicklawske reviews music and theater for the News Tribune.