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Music Review: Steve Miller Band – ‘Welcome to the Vault,’ Plus Mavericks, Sofia Talvik

What’s left to offer in the retrospective department when you’ve already released Anthology, Best of 1968–1973, Greatest Hits 1974–78, Young Hearts: Complete Greatest Hits, Ultimate Hits, and several other career-spanning compilations? For rock’s Steven Miller Band, the answer is a box set that completely eschews the hit recordings that powered their career in favor of alternate versions, demos, and rare live tracks, 38 of which have not previously been released.

Called Welcome to the Vault, the package includes three CDs, plus a DVD with live performances culled from a variety of sources. The discs come packaged in a 100-page hardcover book whose cover sports a 3D version of the cover art from 1977’s Book of Dreams. Inside are numerous photos, 10 guitar picks, four postcards, a poster, a backstage pass, and an informative 9,000-word essay about Miller’s career by critic David Fricke.

Thirty-one of the album’s 52 tracks date from 1973 to 1982, the band’s heyday, when they scored major hits with numbers like “The Joker,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock’n Me,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner,” and “Abracadabra.” Another 14 songs come from Miller’s earlier years, when his accompanists included Boz Scaggs; only seven represent the more than three decades that followed the peak years. The alternate and live versions embrace all the aforementioned numbers as well as such other well-known songs as “Space Cowboy,” “Quicksilver Girl,” and “Living in the U.S.A.”

Like the original hits, all of these versions will remind you just how good Miller was at combining sparkling productions, deft lyrics, tasty guitar flourishes, and catchy hooks. But the album’s less-commercial and less-familiar material is equally interesting and may prove revelatory to those who know Miller solely or primarily from the hits. They demonstrate that the blues was more than just a spice added to his rock—it was his passion and a genre he was well equipped to represent.

This passion dates from his childhood, when his father’s friends included electric-guitar legend Les Paul, who was Miller’s godfather, and blues giant T-Bone Walker. (Welcome to the Vault includes a 1951 recording made by Walker at Miller’s home, when the future rocker was about eight; also here is a duet by Paul and Miller on Jimmy Reed’s “I Wanna Be Loved.”) This box opens with a potent, nearly 11-minute live 1969 reading of Little Walter’s “Blues with a Feeling” and includes such other blues excursions as Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” Willie Dixon’s “My Babe,” and Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble.”

After listening to this material, you won’t be surprised to learn that Miller recalls wanting in his early days to have “[Paul] Butterfield’s gig” and to “jam with Muddy Waters.” He has always had one foot in rock, but the other has been in blues from day one.

This box’s DVD is less notable than its CDs, simply because most of it was not recorded with today’s technology. An 11-song 1973 New York concert that aired on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert leads off the program, which also features two tracks each from a gig with Les Paul, the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, and the Fillmore West. There’s also a track with blues singer and harmonica player James Cotton; a reading of “Abracadabra” from a Michigan concert; and, from a 2011 appearance on PBS’s Austin City Limits, “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Living in the U.S.A.”

The sound throughout most of the DVD is just so-so, and you can say the same about the quality of the picture, which is widescreen only on the two tracks from Austin, which are the only ones you’ll likely want to view more than once. In fact, if you’ve seen the excellent Austin City Limits show, you might well wonder why Miller didn’t opt to include all of that concert along with just a sample of the Kirshner one, rather than the other way around.

Oh, well, maybe next time: Fricke’s essay mentions that Welcome to the Vault is only “the first volume in a long-term plan of archival projects.”

BRIEFLY NOTED

The Mavericks, Play the Hits. Is there nothing the Mavericks can’t do? Maybe not. On this superb latest album, which marks the 30th anniversary of the band’s founding, they shift gears seamlessly from vintage rock (a horn-spiced reading of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel”) and Motown (Marvin Gaye’s “Once Upon a Time,” with Martina McBride singing Mary Wells’s part) to outlaw country (Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”), modern rock (Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”), and traditional country (Harlan Howard’s “Why Can’t She Be You” and John Anderson’s “Swingin’”).

The arrangements are consistently innovative and the band is on fire. And listening to Raul Malo singing Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” or “Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” (which features the great accordionist Flaco Jimenez), it’s easy to conclude that Malo is one of the greatest pop vocalists to come down the pike since Roy Orbison.

Sofia Talvik, Paws of a Bear. Swedish pop/folk singer Sofia Talvik’s greatest strengths are her angelic voice and heartfelt original compositions, many of which limn romantic relationships. Both of those assets are in full evidence on this latest album, where she often sounds redolent of early Marianne Faithfull. On highlights such as “I Liked You Better,” “California Snow,” and “Die Alone” she weds lilting music to compelling, cliche-free lyrics that at least seem to be drawn from her own experience. To an even greater extent than her excellent earlier albums, Paws of a Bear makes a strong argument that Talvik deserves a wide audience.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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