in performance: huey lewis and the news

huey lewis

“What a great place for music,” Huey Lewis said Oct. 19 at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Newlin Hall in Danville. “Makes you wonder why anyone would waste it on two people talking.”

The crack, of course, alluded to last week’s vice presidential debate, which took place on the very same stage. But there was none of what Joe Biden so fervently tagged as “malarkey” this time out. Instead, Lewis, 62, fronted an 11 member version of his West Coast rock and soul troupe The News, and he chose pop over politics. The 90-minute set relied on an immensely fun repertoire that balanced the singer’s plentiful ’80s-era hits with covers of R&B classics, a dash of doo-wop and a performance attitude that never let slip its sense of good cheer.

Opening, as did Lewis mid-’80s shows at Rupp Arena, with The Heart of Rock and Roll, the evening presented The News as less of a conventional rock troupe and more as an orchestral backdrop for a pop-soul revue. Rhythmically, the band’s groove was airtight, from the crisp charge of a three-man horn section (which grew to a quartet when co-founding News-man Johnny Colla switched from guitar to tenor sax) to the vocal drive of singers Daunielle Hill and Sandy Griffith.

Lewis, unsurprisingly, was the focal point. He proved an amiable, fast-on-his-feet frontman. His vocals – possessing both a learned sense of pop phrasing and durable R&B huskiness – fueled a variety of material, from the well-weathered hit Heart and Soul to a celebratory update of Solomon Burke’s Got to Get You Off of My Mind to less expected News fare – in particular, the Steely Dan-ish Small World.

But the singer also knew when to cool it. In covering The Staples Singers’ gospel-soul gem Respect Yourself, he wisely limited his vocal lead to the conversational introductory verse popularized by Pops Staples. The heavy testifying was left to Hill and Griffith, who pretty much pitched a tent revival with the tune.

The often orchestral sound that grew out of all this was continually engaging. But one of the show’s brightest spots came when Lewis and the core News lineup, sans the brass and singers, went it alone on their hit 1987 version of Bruce Hornsby’s Jacob’s Ladder. Built around a basic groove established on blues harp (courtesy of Lewis) and hi-hat (from longstanding News drummer Bill Gibson), the tune encapsulated, as did so much of the evening, a level of pop gusto that hasn’t dimmed with the decades.

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