Doobies keep train runnin’

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American rockers The Doobie Brothers are one of those bands whose music is part of the audible fabric of life. 

They have sold 40 million albums worldwide during the past four decades. Forty million. 

And even if you’re too young to have ever heard of them before, you’ll have heard them before. 

Songs such as Listen to the Music, Long Train Runnin’ and What a Fool Believes have that pervasive quality. 

It is a combination of their innate hip-wiggling rhythmic memorability coupled with extensive airplay, multiple covers, remixes and use on soundtracks. 

Doobie Tom Johnston says: “Some of those songs I’ve played so many times I could play them in my sleep. But by the same token every night you play them they’re different tunes just because of the surroundings – the venue, the people in front of you, crowd strength, everything. There are so many variables. 

“The one thing that doesn’t vary is us working hard to put on the best possible show,” he says. 

“Everyone takes pride in it. If it wasn’t that way I wouldn’t be touring. The travel gets old though, I’ll be the first to admit it, but the show makes up for it. 

“I always quote Keith [Knudsen] on this, our drummer who passed away in 2005. He said ‘We get paid for the 22 hours it takes to get to the show and then we play for nothing’.” 

The Doobies have had a fluid line-up down the years. Even John­­ston, a creative driving force in the band since they were playing impromptu gigs to Californian biker gangs in the late 60s, was absent for several years in the 70s. The whole band split in ’82 but reformed in ’87. 

Johnston and ever-present Pat Simmons – both songwriters, guitarists and vocalists – are the two original members still in the band for a gig this Saturday afternoon at Gibbston Vallery Winery, Queenstown. 

Multi-instrumentalist John McFee is also a long-term member, having joined in ’79. 

And while there is sometimes a cynicism that surrounds old rock bands who continue to tour – that they are in some way trading in nostalgia – The Doobie Brothers are very much still recording artists. 

They released World Gone Crazy in 2010. 

Johnston says: “The set list now consists of five tunes off the new album and then it’s pick and choose from songs throughout several eras of the band, if you will. 

“Along with a couple of the old chestnuts that people want to hear, there’ll be some deep album cuts, songs like Clear as the Driven Snow.” 

Performing comes as second nature, but the band members still have to practise to bring it all together, Johnston says. 

“More so now than ever,” he says. 

“I’d say now we’re playing better than we used to play by a long shot because everyone takes the time to practise. In the old days we just kinda went out and did it. 

“I know I spend a lot of time practising guitar and doing vocal exercises and that sort of thing to keep the voice in shape. So do the others,” Johnston says. 

“And it pays off, it really does. When you get out on the road your voice doesn’t fatigue on you right away, your [vocal] tops hit better. 

“I’ll tell you right now musically we are probably at a place where we’ve never quite been before as far as really putting on a great show.” 

Tickets to The Doobie Brothers, supported by Little River Band, are priced at $89. Gates open at noon, Saturday, for the Gibbston Valley Winery show which starts at 1pm