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Back in Time 

The mustachioed half of Hall & Oates brews a blues stew

Daryl Hall and John Oates had the perfect recipe for chewy pop gold back in the day. The Philadelphia duo hit No. 1 five times between 1980 and 1984 with songs like "Kiss on My List," "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," and "Out of Touch."

They not only ruled the radio waves; they invaded our televisions via MTV, making delicious, doe-eyed, and R&B-inflected pop, with mullet-wielding Hall fingering the keyboards and Oates massaging a guitar while rocking one of pop's all-time greatest mustaches.

Everyone loved their music back then — white people, black people, old people, young people. "[We've been] accused of having this pact with the commercial devil, like we had this secret formula for cranking out hits," says Oates. "But it wasn't just a random occurrence of time and place. We spent the entire '70s trying to find ourselves and our sound. In the '80s everything changed. We started making albums the way we wanted to. We had no filter between what we wanted to do and the records we were making."

Oates has been using that formula ever since. In fact, he's applying even fewer filters to it these days. On his third solo album in nine years, the recently released Mississippi Mile, Oates says he's finally made the record he's always wanted to: a blues set that exorcises the demons of guitar masters from the past.

He pulls out covers of several delta blues classics and chronicles musical inspirations, from Curtis Mayfield's "It's All Right" to Allan Fraser's "Dance Hall Girls." But pop craftsman Oates has a knack for making roots music sound a lot like the Top 40.

"If you distill Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Curtis Mayfield, and Chuck Berry, you put them in a pot and stir them up, that becomes my style," he says. "I'm a product of the sum total of the influences on this album. That's what made it so satisfying for me to record, but at the same time I was also trying to reimagine them."

Hall & Oates basically spent their career reworking classic soul music. So it's no surprise that Oates works in a similar vein on Mississippi Mile, even covering "You Make My Dreams," one of Hall & Oates' most endearing songs. But he adds a Texas swing to the mix, effectively making the '80s seem way cooler than they actually were.

He also penned a pair of new tunes for the album: the title track and "Deep River," using slide guitar, honky-tonk piano, and his raspy, road-weary vocals. "They sum up the album in spirit and in style," he says.

Mississippi Mile's distinct take on American roots fusion has been catching a lot of fans by surprise. It's even snagging some relatively famous ones. The twangy and beloved Avett Brothers even asked Oates to open up some tour dates this summer. "For many years, a lot of younger groups kind of shunned older artists, not wanting to be associated with them because it made them un-hip or dated them in some weird way," says Oates. "When I was growing up, I couldn't think of anything better than to honor the people that came before me."

A now mustache-free Oates is playing new material as well as some Hall & Oates classics onstage during his current U.S. tour. He and Hall still perform together, playing around 30 shows each year. But Oates doubts they'll ever write new music together again. "Our future is its history," he says. (Hall is busy these days hosting the popular web series Live From Daryl's House, which pairs him with various artists for chats and songs.)

"I've got my songwriting and my life in Nashville, and a whole set of new musical friends I've started to work with," Oates says. "And I'm playing and singing better than I have my whole life."

More by Keith Gribbins

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