On a recent Wednesday night, The X Factor was not the place to hear or see the next big thing. In fact, the next big thing just might be a trio of veterans who have decades of singing and songwriting success to their credit. That was the impression Blue Sky Riders gave during the second night of their week-long residency at Feinstein’s in New York. They aren’t just any ordinary trio, however. They are Kenny Loggins and Nashville-based singer-songwriters Georgia Middleman and Gary Burr. “Kenny called me two years ago and made me a very happy girl,” shared Middleman with the audience. Two years later, Blue Sky Riders are making those who appreciate infectious melodies and crystalline harmonies very happy too, with a repertoire of original songs due for release in January 2013.
The Blue Sky Riders experience is all about stories and songs. The trio got right to the point upon taking the stage. “There’s no turning back when I finally take flight,” they sang on the rousing opener “Feelin’ Brave”. It’s a sentiment that extended to the concert itself, for Blue Sky Riders brought the audience on a journey, a journey that toured the past four years, from Loggins’ first writing session with Burr in Nashville (“How About Now”), through the inception of the group and their first songwriting collaboration as a trio (“I Get It”). Sprinkled throughout were detours to songs that one member might have begun years before but only completed after meeting the other two songwriters. That’s the essence of Blue Sky Riders: three musicians whose individual talents stand on their own merit but are enhanced by collaboration.
Though Burr is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and both he and Middleman have written hits for country giants like Faith Hill and Reba McEntire, country music doesn’t define the group—exceptional songwriting does. It’s a quality that translates, whether in the playfully defiant “You’re Not the Boss of Me” or the poignant, contemplative “Gonna Take Another Spring”. The latter attests to the natural cycle of healing, whether it’s the dissolution of a love affair or, in the case of Loggins’ initial inspiration, nature’s will to survive calamity. Sung by Middleman, “Little Victories” similarly reflects the resiliency of the human spirit. The singer dedicated the song to “anyone out there who is struggling”, reminding listeners that the heart and soul can emerge unscathed from any adversity.
Halfway through the 16-song set, Loggins explained how his enthusiasm for starting a new band with Burr and Middleman was met with some resistance from trusted industry friends. “It’s like starting my life over,” he said to one particular confidante, who replied, “I advise against this. You’re too old to start over.” Instead of taking the advice, Loggins conjured a lyric—“too old to dream”—and wrote “Dream” with his band mates. “(If I listen to you, they might as well) Leave me in the rain / Send me out to sea / Lock me up in chains / Throw away the key,” goes the chorus, which furnished one of the most memorable hooks of the evening. Each member traded lead vocals, but it was Middleman’s closing gesture—a fist to the air—that symbolized the spirit of “Dream”. The crowd’s ardent response was all the vindication Loggins needed.
Inspired by a songwriters’ performance space in Nashville called the Bluebird Cafe, Middleman then introduced what the trio calls the “and then I wrote this…” section of the show. Guitarist/keyboardist Scott Bernard, drummer Tommy Bretlein, and bassist George Hawkins, Jr. momentarily departed the stage, leaving all three members of Blue Sky Riders to perform one of their own self-penned compositions on acoustic guitar. Loggins invited the audience to sing along on a pair of classics from his catalog—“Danny’s Song” and “House at Pooh Corner”—while Middleman sang her 2009 hit for Keith Urban, “I’m In”, wherein Burr and Loggins were the Pips to Middleman’s Gladys Knight. Burr accompanied himself on acoustic guitar for “What Mattered Most”, a song that Ty Herndon took to number one in 1995. The section was a welcome supplement to the new material and gave listeners an opportunity to actively participate in the performance.
Following what was essentially a four-song “unplugged” interlude, the band returned to the stage for “Side B” of the album. “This is how we knew we had a band,” shared Middleman about “I Get It”. Exuberant and contagiously tuneful, the song was punctuated by glistening a cappella harmonies, further reflecting the trio’s seamless vocal blend.
When Blue Sky Riders’ debut surfaces early next year, one track is guaranteed constant rotation, whether on personal playlists or, hopefully, the airwaves—“Windeer Woman”. Loggins noted how the song’s roots trace back to his Leap of Faith (1991) album, when he first conceived a piece of the verse. Loggins revisited the lyrics with his band mates two decades later. In just six minutes, Burr penned the chorus and “Windeer Woman” took shape. At Feinstein’s, the newly completed tune came to life as the ever versatile Scott Bernard played an expressive, mournful melody on keyboards, with touches of accordion gracing the notes underneath Loggins’ lead vocal.
The band concluded the show with a pair of songs that exemplified their patented punch of melody and rhythm. “How About Now” (the title track to Loggins’ 2008 solo album) and “I’m A Rider” were smart choices to whet the audience’s appetite for the forthcoming album. Greeted by a standing ovation, Blue Sky Riders launched into the Beatles’ “Help!” for the evening’s encore. Middleman stepped into the audience, bringing a personal touch to the words “I do appreciate you being ‘round”.
However, Blue Sky Riders needn’t much help to win fans. Their music suffices. To paraphrase a line from “I’m a Rider”, they’ve triumphantly crossed the great unknown and discovered the best in themselves.