Hall and Oates: Still Relevant. Still Rocking.

Do What You Want, Be What You Are
Sony Legacy

Hall and Oates have conquered enviable territory as a rock and soul musical duo. After decades of hits and after being considered a “guilty pleasure” by a rock critical establishment with a penchant for getting things wrong, they’ve affirmed and confirmed that they possess something that is difficult to measure, but profoundly invaluable: relevancy.

A plethora of young bands and singer/songwriters, including Brandon Flowers, Chromeo, Travis McCoy, and Fitz and The Tantrums, along with many others that Daryl Hall has featured as guests on his internet program, Live From Daryl’s House, have cited that duo as a major source of influence and inspiration. Hits from the ’80s like “You Make My Dreams Come True,” “Private Eyes”m and “Kiss On My List” are becoming soundtrack staples in indie and mainstream movies, such as 500 Days of Summer, She’s Out My League, and Knight and Day.

These days, Hall and Oates have acquired a young audience, gaining hipster chic status, and thanks to a hybrid following of nostalgic boomers, curious teenagers, and enthusiastic 20-somethings, have been quietly selling out every show on the two year Do What You Want, Be What You Are tour in support of their retrospective box set that Daryl Hall promises, “tells our story both musically and textually.”

When I interviewed John Oates over the telephone (February 2011), he spoke with audible pride about winning a youthful audience that ensures and protects their music’s vitality. “It is the ultimate goal of a songwriter to write a song that continues to touch new people for 30 years. It gives a timeless quality to your music.”

Daryl Hall recently won a webby award for his monthly internet broadcast, Live From Daryl’s House, in which he performs duets with a different musical guest each month from the comfortable quarters of his home. Live From Daryl’s House is an innovation that demonstrates the power of the internet more than most of the sideshow distraction and amateur culture of the blogosphere and YouTube. Visitors are empowered to go to a free concert each month, and highlights include Hall and Smokey Robinson improvising “Ooh Baby Baby” after “Sara Smile”, and Chromeo talk boxing their way through the funk of “I Can’t Go For That”.

Every year in Aspen, Colorado John Oates holds a songwriters festival that brings together rising stars like Donovan Frankenreiter, Matt Nathanson, and The Bird and The Bee, who released a Hall and Oates tribute album. Oates explains that “pop music moves forward only through cross-generational collaboration” and that it was always important for him and Daryl Hall to “continue the tradition of American music” by “keeping one foot in the old school, while moving one foot into the new school.”

If Marshal McLuhan is correct in his famous maxim that “the medium is the message”, Hall and Oates may have a greater influence and importance than most artists and bands who try to change the world, or at least smear their fingerprint on it, with socially conscience lyrics, acts of personal and public rebellion, and political posturing.

Without constantly beating their chests, Hall and Oates are demonstrating how to not only be cross-generational, but also simultaneously multi-epochal. Their hits and the influences that they wear on their sleeve – Philly Soul, Motown, Memphis Stax – are a reference point to the greatness of historic American black music, from Doo Wop to Dance. Their current vibrancy and musical output keeps them balanced in the present. John Oates recently released an Americana solo album recorded in Nashville titled Mississippi Mile, and Hall, while continuing to broadcast from the internet, will release a solo album in the fall. Their consistent collaboration with younger bands and artists, insistence on always “infusing old songs with modern sensibilities”, as Oates explains, and Hall’s pioneering use of new media, guarantees that they will have a place in the future.

The complex project of Hall and Oates is an impressive and substantive presentation of how to keep tradition alive and honor posterity, while relevantly moving forward into a rapidly changing future. The ability to simultaneously progress and preserve is rare and instructive to a culture dedicated to tearing down its traditions and losing its identity in the name of “progression”, which too often means the all trumping obsession with wealth, power, and efficiency.

In business, the middle-class must die for the sake of the globalized growth of multi-national corporations, which means cheaper goods but fewer jobs at home. In higher education, the liberal arts are collateral damage to expanding and expensive schools that must keep enrollment numbers up, fundraising high, and favor with stimuli-starved students. In the media, sustained attention to one story, investigative reporting, and foreign bureaus are murdered on the perpetually accelerating news cycle that spins at the speed of the wheels on a Harley on the highway.

Finding a way to progress and preserve at the same time is crucial to the survival of American institutions and culture, and while Hall and Oates, or any pop group for that matter, may be an unlikely source of instruction, they do present a model of blending what was great about the past and what is good about the present with what promises to be great in the future. This may be one reason, among others, that the duo’s music resonates with a younger audience that desires something that has longevity and has built a legacy, but wants to be spoken to in terms that they experientially and emotionally understand.

“Infusing old songs with modern sensibilities,” as Oates calls it, is simply a way of explaining what you do in language that young people, who weren’t around when Hall and Oates began doing what it is that they do, will not only comprehend, but feel. Hall and Oates, therefore, use the internet, updated versions of their classic songs, and collaboration with young bands and artists, which is why when they play a song that charted around the time half their audience was born, it doesn’t seem like an artifact from a lost age or a nostalgic souvenir from a bygone era.

On 26 June 2011 I saw Hall and Oates in concert for the second time in a year. A year earlier, I was among the crowd at the Chicago Theatre, located in the city’s South Loop that swirls with activity from college students studying at the nearby campuses, tourists shopping in the nearby business district, professionals in suits filing in and out of offices in high rises, and working people in uniforms cleaning streets, washing windows, and waiting tables. The show was sold out and the diverse crowd, ranging in age from 16 to 60, stood on their feet for the opening notes of the first song, “Maneater”, and didn’t sit down until they got into their cars to drive home.

A year later, and just a few weeks ago, I was driving with my girlfriend an hour and a half to Ravinia Festival to see the Hall and Oates show. Ravinia is an outdoor concert amphitheater with a 3,200 seat pavilion surrounded by 36 acres of picnic grounds located in Highland Park, Illinois, a rich northern suburb of Chicago where the median income is well over $100,000 and the business elite, along with many professional athletes that at one time included Michael Jordan, make their home.

The show was also sold out, which meant that the main parking lot next to Ravinia, was filled to capacity by the time we made it there. Several miles from the concert venue are assorted park-and-ride lots where attendees can park their cars and hop a bus to the concert.

Almost immediately after hopping onto the bus, it was obvious that the Ravinia audience was and would be different from the Chicago Theatre crowd. Middle-aged and elderly couples in designer labels, holding wine bottles and picnic baskets and speaking in hushed, library tones sat on the bus staring ahead, typing into cell phones, or, no kidding, reading Amazon Kindles.

As I stood on a Pace bus, holding onto a pole in the middle of the aisle, looking out at the multi-million dollar homes with manicured lawns, I realized that driving from Indiana through Chicago freeway traffic, parking miles away from the concert venue, and subsequently catching a bus to said venue is an awful lot to go through for a concert. It made me wonder, is it worth it? Is it ever worth it to fight traffic, deal with the obnoxious behavior of any crowd, which I myself have been guilty of many times, and pay a hefty ticket fee to see and hear live renditions of songs I can enjoy in the comfort of my home at almost no cost?

The answer to that question lies with the performers, and Hall and Oates had their work ahead of them to eclipse the hassle of merely getting to our seats in the 20th row of the pavilion.

Before Hall, Oates, and their band could weigh into the discussion, however, my girlfriend and I made our way through the open grounds of people in linen pants sitting on blankets by candlelight, pouring Champaign, and applying bug spray to their arms with the earnestness of a doctor sanitizing a scalpel.

There wasn’t a concession stand. There was a large cafeteria service style restaurant where music listeners had their choice of carefully packaged, overly priced personal pizzas, beef and chicken skewers, and sushi rolls. The typical variety of sodas, waters, beers and wine were available, along with $30 bottles of Sake. Eating sushi while listening to Hall croon away on “Say It Isn’t So” just wouldn’t be right without a little Sake to wash it down. A garden dining area bordered the cafeteria from the concert grounds. Ornate metal tables on stoney ground with shade umbrellas provided the seating for concert goers who picked away at their food. One man was wearing a beautifully crafted gray suit, while another had his sweater tied around his shoulders as if he just missed a casting call for Zack Morris on Saved By the Bell.

Infusing Old Songs with Modern Sensibilities

The first sign of kindred spirits I saw came in the form of a pair of young men. One had grown a thick black mustache that he complemented with a big black curly haired wig. He wore a denim vest with denim shorts and construction boots. His friend had a wig of long, flowing blonde hair, draping below the shoulders of his bright green suit jacket, which he wore over a white T-Shirt that fell just above the zipper of his black jeans. Perfect faux-‘80s-Hall and Oates. Two girls in shorts and tank tops ran up to them with cans of beer, one of them let out a “Wooo!” Oh good, I thought, we’re back at a rock show.

Due to a strict no food or drink policy in the pavilion, which in spite of myself I applaud because it spares me the nuisance of dealing with people who get up and down throughout shows to make repeated beer and bathroom runs, I slugged a can of beer, dropped it in a trash can, and we made our way to our seats. The only sign more prominent and pervasive than the “No Smoking” logo plastered all over the grounds was a “Please Recycle” command. My unintentional error of depositing the aluminum can into the waste basket full of unrecyclable material went unpunished, whether it caused the Earth’s temperature to slightly spike or not.

Pockets of excitable youth were scattered around the pavilion, along with people in blue jeans. Most of the crowd, however, resembled the leisurely picnic preppies. The opening band, Chicago’s own Company of Thieves, played a brief, but eclectic set of punk rock, love ballads, and soulful dance numbers. Lead singer Genevieve Schatz, wearing red spandex, sang and screamed viciously into the microphone while making animated hand gestures toward the crowd. I would see her wildly dancing slightly off stage throughout most of Hall and Oates’ set, but while she sang with the rest of Company of Thieves behind her on guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums, most of the Hall and Oates band stood slightly off stage watching with clear focus and bopping their heads in approval. Highlights of the set included a love song that name checks and pays tribute to Oscar Wilde, an angry protest song in which Schatz sang through a megaphone called “Gorgeous/Grotesque,” and “Tallulah,” a poppy soul song with a big hook and full horn section that sounded like it could have been written by Daryl Hall and John Oates.

Company of Thieves were a guest on Live From Daryl’s House after the release of their first album in 2009, and they certainly had the approval of Hall and Oates and received roars of applause from the younger members of the audience at Ravinia. A woman dripping in diamond rings seated over my left shoulder shouted her complaint that the music was “too loud” in a voice louder than the music to her nodding husband. A couple in matching white cashmere sweaters in front of us seemed intent on looking anywhere and everywhere but the stage. The band, despite the solemn and boring atmosphere created by a bulk of the crowd, put on an impressive show, and thanks to Daryl Hall, who gave them a big break with his internet webcast that Schatz mentioned several times, likely has a big future ahead of them.

After a brief intermission, Hall and Oates took the stage to the reception one would expect a speaker to receive at a PTA meeting. I stood up and cheered, as did the pockets of young people in the audience, a mother and son enjoying the show behind me, and few other scattered music lovers, but the rest of the audience sat on their hands.

The opening notes of the number 1 single “Maneater” filled the air and the band played it with an energy and ferocity that resulted from not only from having three guitars in the mix, but those “modern sensibilities” that Oates talked about. Like the songs that followed it – “Method of Modern Love”, “Say It Isn’t So”, and “Out of Touch” – it sounded like it would fit well on top 40 radio next week, but managed to still hold strongly to its Philly soul and Motown foundation.

After the high-powered assault of “Out of Touch”, Hall and Oates settled into a string of mid-tempo soul tunes that showed off Hall’s vocal power and prowess and the band’s nearly flawless exercise of excellence musicianship. “It’s a Laugh”, “Las Vegas Turnaround”, which Oates sings lead on, and “She’s Gone” had the band locked into such a tight groove that if the arrangements and rhythm didn’t sound organic, it would be difficult to believe that these were live performances. In an era of overproduced, auto-tuned, cut and paste recording it is magnificent and important to see a group of singers and musicians not only playing music, but making it, without the aid of excessive technology, at a level of the highest quality in real time.

Charlie Dechant on saxophone was the standout player, playing varied solo after solo and knowing exactly when to drop in and out of songs with fills and rhythmic backup. Everett Bradley on percussion and backup vocals has a voice strong enough to keep up with Hall. Paul Pesco’s guitar solos had the dynamism associated with a rock show, while Eliot Lewis played keyboards with subtlety or strength, depending on the song, and sang harmony. Drummer, Brian Dunne, kept the beat whether it was a slow churning ballad or energetic dance tune.

John Oates, who sings excellent backup vocals and plays fiery guitar licks, mainly takes a backseat to the charismatic lead singer, but his solo work, especially Mississippi Mile, along with his songwriting credits on many of the duo’s biggest and best songs, prove that he’s not a mere sidekick.

The groove in the songs was so pure that when they were about love and sex, it seemed natural to think only about love and sex, rather than music, concerts, or tickets.

The soulful funk culminated in a song that Daryl Hall introduced by calling it a song about how “Some things should always last. In a world of impermanence, something needs to last.” He then led the band through a six minute version of “Sara Smile” in which he Gospel shouted, falsetto wailed, and jazzy scat sang to demonstrate why Smokey Robinson on Live From Daryl’s House said that Hall is one of the greatest singers he’s ever heard.

Dave Stewart, another recent guest, put it best, however, when he said that “Daryl has a way of expressing things that most people cannot attain to. His voice is so magnificent that it can cut through the crap and hit you right in the heart.”

Hall’s voice hits the chord of the soul, just as Smokey Robinson’s, Al Green’s, Aretha Franklin’s, Mary J. Blige’s, or any great soul singer’s does. His voice represents and presents an emotional truth that goes beyond mere words on a page.

The audience was still largely lethargic and boring, and even “Do What You Want, Be What You Are”, a soulful jam couldn’t bring them out of their snobbish sleep.

The line to get back on the bus at the end of the show snaked around guard rails and must have held a few thousand people. A group of 20-somethings walked by shouting the chorus of “Private Eyes” at the top of their lungs, while a few teenagers chanted “train” as they ran to catch one that was boarding at nearby tracks. One young guy, after looking at the length of the line, said to no one in particular, “This can’t be real.”

As we stood there waiting, it occurred to me that most of the Ravinia crowd represents the people who run the country. Their values, priorities, and preferences shape the country’s policies and culture. They are people who refuse to open themselves up to moments of emotional possibility during a night of popular music. They are the cold, unfeeling, and arrogant elite that sold out culture to commerce, worry about tax cuts more than they do the poor, and think the world’s health and environmental problems can be solved with indoor smoking bans and bike paths in the nicer neighborhoods.

Hall got them, though. He, Oates, and the band closed the main set with an extended version of “I Can’t Go For That”, the pop, dance, and soul tune that had a “Billie Jean” beat before Michael Jackson put out “Billie Jean”. Hall sang with ferocity and the band turned the festival grounds into a night club. Most of the crowd stood and danced at the club through the exciting encore set of “Rich Girl”, “You Make My Dreams Come True”, “Kiss On My List”, and “Private Eyes”.

Live music, especially in the hands of a group with the talent of Hall and Oates, has value beyond mere escapism. The duo provided first class entertainment, but they provided an example for living with a commitment to vitality and a devotion to enthusiasm. The hope is that when Hall and Oates finally got those otherwise uptight people to lose themselves in the moment and stand up to dance, they taught them to live with less restraint and taught them to open up to lives of greater joy.

The future of that hope is uncertain, but at Ravinia, Hall won a victory for passion over haughtiness, and by doing so, he proved that even detached people are reachable, and he answered the question that ran through my mind during my first bus ride of the night, “Is it worth it?”

It is.