Stepping onto the Paramount Theatre stage October 21, 2011, an ebullient Huey Lewis and the News seemed eager to showcase their new album Soulsville. The near-capacity crowd, however, appeared much more interested in reliving their 1980s youth.
Once one of the biggest-selling groups of the eighties, Huey Lewis and the News continue recording new albums and touring, albeit at smaller venues such as the Paramount in Aurora, Illinois. At 61, Lewis has retained his boyish charm and “guy next door” persona, cheerfully leading the audience in sing-alongs and cracking jokes about his age. While only three other original band members remain, the group has maintained its old-fashioned rock and roll sensibilities with just a hint of soul. They may not rack up massive hits anymore, but their energetic live shows demonstrate their commitment to their own sound.
In a risky move, the band kicked off the show with several Soulsville tracks in a row, with no familiar Huey Lewis tunes in sight. A horn section and two soulful backup singers illustrated their group’s obvious love of Stax soul, and Lewis belted out classics such as “Respect Yourself,” “Can’t Fight It,” “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” and “I Want to Do (Everything for You).” He confidently strutted as he sang “Every little thing that she does/You know the girl’s all right,” and oozed Southern soul on the ballad “Soulsville.” The crowd reacted to the new material politely, but appeared restless until Lewis finally brought the nostalgia.
Launching into the straight-ahead rock of “Heart of Rock and Roll,” they invited comparisons between their own catalog and the Stax soul the band clearly loves. Elements of soul and blues permeate their well-known songs, which Lewis further emphasizes with his funky harmonica playing. His extended solo inspired roars from the crowd. Following tradition, Huey Lewis and the News showed off their harmonizing skills during the a cappella section of the show. This time the group performed a lively, perfectly harmonized version of the R&B classic “Sixty Minute Man.”
Then came the most fascinating part of the show. Before the concert began, an announcement blared over the theater’s sound system that the audience was to remain in their seats for the duration of the performance. Feeling as though I had just landed in a scene from Footloose, I heard the crowd booing; one man sitting behind me loudly announced that he came to dance, and that was that. When Lewis hit the stage, he contradicted the instructions by telling everyone to sing and dance as they liked. Certainly the crowd was mellow, with most of the crowed aged 40 and up (with many gray-haired heads visible). The tense atmosphere exploded when the band launched into “Heart and Soul”; all of a sudden, a large number of people leaped out of their seats and rushed the stage! Lewis appeared startled at first, but soon played to the crowd, high-fiving people and even talking to individuals. The lead guitarist wailed as fans pumped their fists in the air. For just a few moments, it was 1984 all over again, a scene straight of their “I Want A New Drug” video.
Speaking of the video, the group immediately segued into that song, earning more ecstatic responses. The extended drum and bass solos emphasized how those elements really drive the track. Returning to Soulsville, Lewis brought the background singers back out for spirited renditions of “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” and “Never Like This Before,” both featuring fun interplay between Lewis and the two female vocalists. Not surprisingly, the pumped crowd would not let Huey Lewis and the News end the concert there—so they launched into their monster hit “Power of Love” (Lewis wryly noted that when they wrote the song, they had no idea that they’d be playing the track every night for the rest of their careers!).
Reflecting the intimacy of the small venue, Lewis then announced that the band would take requests. The fans still standing directly in front of the stage called out their favorites, and the band eventually chose “Do You Believe in Love” (performed in a much lower key and slower tempo) and “Stuck with You.” But Huey Lewis and the News went out with a bang on the fan favorite “Workin’ for a Livin’”; Lewis stood on an amp, blowing the harmonica while the rest of the band jammed hard behind him.
While they may never have equaled their 80s success, Huey Lewis and the News still stage an incredible live show. Lewis remains the consummate frontman, playing to the crowd like a pro. Their intricate harmonies and memorable tunes prove that they are more than just a glorified bar band. For future shows, however, the band might consider different pacing. Beginning the show with five or six new, largely unfamiliar material hazards losing the audience, who come largely to hear the hits. Mixing in the new with the classics, rather than playing several unknown tracks in a row, would encourage fans to place unfamiliar material in context with the old favorites.