Huey Lewis| Photo from hueylewisandthenews.com
By Joe Livernois
The Monterey Jazz Festival in 2011 included a killer line-up featuring India.Arie and Idan Raichel, Herbie Hancock, Poncho Sanchez & his Latin Jazz Band … and Huey Lewis & the News.
Wait! What? Huey Lewis? And the News? What sort of jazz festival would allow a huge arena-rock icon into the fold? It’d be like inviting Gilbert Gottfried to be the keynote speaker at an international convention of physicists. Jazz purists must have dug their own graves just so they could spin in them.
This is not a knock on Huey Lewis. By all accounts, Huey Lewis is the nicest man in rock ‘n’ roll, the most accommodating showman in a world of prima donnas and misfits. For a while there in the ‘80s, Huey Lewis was about as big as big can be in rock music. And it’s not a knock on the Monterey Jazz Festival. By all accounts, the braintrust at the jazz festival does what it can to keep current with what’s popular with the kids. (Never mind that Huey Lewis was 61 years old in 2011 and that most of his fans were entering their best AARP years.)
In any case, the Jazz Festival folks must’ve heard that it’s hip to be square or something.
Truth be told, Huey Lewis has had many memorable moments on the Central Coast. Back in the day, before every song he ever wrote zoomed up the Top 40 charts and stayed there forever, he kicked around the area as the happy-to-lucky guy who played local clubs with bands like Slippery Elm and Clover. Dan Miller, who went on to promote big-name local shows on the Monterey Peninsula for years, said the first great show he ever saw was at Mission Ranch, where he caught Huey Lewis and the News, with a group called The Suburbs (later known as Eddie and the Tide) opening the show.
Huey Lewis did the Laguna Seca Raceway back in 1987, back when big music at Laguna Seca was a happening thing. He did the Monterey Fair once in 1992 (admission to the Pattee Arena did not get you into the rest of the fair). For a while there Huey Lewis was hitting golf balls with other celebrities at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, back when that was a thing.
And then there’s that time Huey Lewis used the beach (and Boardwalk) at Santa Cruz for the setting of the 1984 video that accompanied “If This Is It,” one of Lewis’ kajillion No. 1 hits off his “Sports” album. It was a big deal on MTV, back when MTV was a thing. Anyone seeking to write the seminal thesis on “Eighties Youth Culture in America” need look no further than the “If This Is It,” video. It’s like the ‘80s version of Woodstock, except with more bikinis, mullets and winking sexual innuendo. If nothing else, the video is significant in that it may have been the inspiration for the “Attaboy, Jimmy” commercials for Pizza My Heart.
Huey Lewis has sold at least 30 million records and he’s won a Grammy and an Oscar and he sold out live performances wherever he toured this great big Huey Lewis World. Huey Lewis provided the soundtrack to the 1980s, and we’re all better because of it.
It’s all great (and deserving) success, sure, but still not what one might expect to see at the Monterey Jazz Festival, a place where wizardry is measured in the improvisations between half notes. The festival has long kept Saturdays open to the more bluesy jazz performers. And occasionally a rocker will slip in. Who remembers that Janis Joplin showed up, with a bottle of Jack Daniels in hand, at the Monterey Jazz Festival only three months after introducing herself to the world at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967?
Bob Danziger, a local musician, innovator and Monterey Jazz Festival historian, said jazz organizations around the country are consciously making their festivals more accessible, inviting others outside the genre. The Huey Lewis appearance in Monterey might not have been the best rock/blues performance at the local jazz festival, Danziger said. That honor probably goes to Mr. Sipp, who played the Garden Stage in 2017, or Common, who played the main stage that same year, Danziger said.
But there was Huey and the News headlining the Saturday show, typically reserved for the more bluesy jazz mastering. Lewis had just released a new album called “Soulsville,” a rhythm-and-blues sort of thing promoted as a tribute to obscure artists that had been signed to Stax Records contracts back in the day. It’s a nice little album, actually, but it didn’t fit into the standard Huey Lewis and the News mold. Lewis himself said he didn’t think the world was “clamoring” for another Huey Lewis album. So the band showed up at the Monterey Jazz Festival to show off “Soulsville.”
And, by most accounts, he pulled it off quite nicely. Lewis noted from the stage that his father, who had recently died, had attended the first-ever festival in 1958. A critic for San Francisco Classical Voice seemed to like what he heard. “On the strength of personal charisma, and indelible rock recognition, Lewis reduced the psychic space between stage and fans still further,” he wrote. The climax of the performance, he added, was an a capella rendition of “Sixty-Minute Man” by Lewis and the band.
The road has been tough on Lewis since then, but he seems to be emerging from a dark place. “Soulsville” was the last album he cut — in 2018 he was diagnosed with a rare ear disorder called Ménière’s disease, which seriously curtailed his touring career. The subsequent hearing loss “ruined everything,” Lewis told the Whitefish Review earlier this month.
“In the first two months of this, I was suicidal,” he said. “I can honestly share that with you. I thought, shit, I’m just going to commit suicide. I actually contemplated my demise.”
Things are looking up, though; Lewis, now 68, recently released a new single, a peppy lamentation about getting old called “While We’re Young.” The song was released in advance of a new album, due out in February, called “Weather.”
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