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From Rodeos to Radio City: Steve Miller’s Endless Tour. On the road with the Seventies hitmaker and perennial live draw

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Jenny Eliscu Sep 14, 2008
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In 1983, everything was pretty much over for me,” says Steve Miller, smoking a cigar in a posh New York hotel room. “Bands like X were the big thing in LA, and my work was being called unmitigated slop. I said to myself, ”˜I get it! I’m outta here! Stop kicking me, I’m leaving.’ ” For five years, Miller ”“ who rang up hit after hit in the Seventies with ultracatchy rockers including ”˜Fly Like an Eagle’ and ”˜The Joker’ ”“ went on hiatus. But in 1988, after seeing how acts like the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd were finding a second life on the road, he changed his mind and booked a theatre tour. At a warm-up gig in Vermont, he got a taste of what was in store. “The show was completely sold out and filled with 16-year-old girls who were shrieking at the tops of their lungs,” he says. “It was like a B movie ”“ they were just crazy for the greatest hits. We looked at each other and said, ”˜We’re back!’ ”

Miller has toured nearly every summer since. “We still do about 50 shows a year,” says the 64-year-old, who will play anywhere: amphitheatres, festivals, rodeos or state fairs. “Once I played a casino in Louisiana that looked like it was a fuckin’ prison that had been painted gold,” he says. “I wish I’d had some barbecue tongs to take the bedspread off.” This summer, Miller is playing his hit-crammed set ”“ which includes nearly every track from the 13-times-platinum Greatest Hits 1974-1978 album ”“ on a four-month tour of outdoor venues with Joe Cocker. “In 2000, we averaged about 10,300 people per show,” says Miller, an astute businessman ever since he began playing music professionally at age 12 in Texas. “Now we’re back up to 15,000 a night. This tour is hot ”“ this has been a hot year out of the clear blue sky.”

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Even though Miller hasn’t had a Top 10 record since 1982’s Abracadabra, his music continues to reach new fans through classic-rock radio, where cuts like ”˜Swingtown’ and ”˜Take the Money and Run’ remain in heavy rotation. “Sometimes when I look out into the crowd, I see five-year-olds, and I see guys with grey hair and no teeth going, ”˜Fuck, yeah! Right on!’ It’s so far out!”

In July, while in Manhattan for a gig at Radio City Music Hall, Miller spends his off night sitting in with guitar legend Les Paul ”“ who is also Miller’s godfather ”“ at the Iridium Jazz Club. While growing up in Texas, Miller absorbed musical instincts and business acumen from hanging around musicians like Paul, who was friends with his parents, and Charles Mingus and T-Bone Walker.

At the club, Miller’s presence isn’t noted until he gets onstage to join Paul on a run through ”˜Fly Like an Eagle.’ Miller maintains a low profile throughout most of the year, splitting his time between homes in Idaho and Washington’s San Juan Islands. “I used to be able to go into a record store, buy Steve Miller CDs, give ’em my Steve Miller credit card and walk out. I don’t have to deal with that celebrity kind of business,” he says. “And that’s the way 99 per cent of my life is.” Though he hasn’t released an album of new material in 15 years, Miller recently recorded 41 blues covers at a studio outside San Francisco, the city where he first found fame. He’s happy with the results, though still uncertain if the tracks will ever see the light of day. “I’m used to releasing a record and selling 2 or 3 million,” he says. “I don’t want to sell 22,000 copies. The whole label structure is falling apart.” Until then, Miller is happy onstage, taking the crowd to ”˜Swingtown’ every night. “On the road, there’s nothing I play that I don’t enjoy playing and that we don’t play with full commitment,” he says. “We give the people the shit that they want to hear. Even that casino that looked like a prison: That gig was fun.”

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