By Mark Guarino
“Has it really been 32 years since ‘Live Bullet’?” Bob Seger asked his audience at the Allstate Arena Thursday.
Yes it has. Yet that anniversary proved not so significant compared to some of the early era songs Seger pulled out of his trick bag on this, his first tour in 10 years. The Michigan native and arena rocker who dominated album-oriented radio in the 1970’s and early 1980’s revealed his true roots during the two-hour, 15-minute show.
Before his star rose due to his husky power ballads and good-time rock anthems, Seger was a member of the first generation of Detroit garage rock, a graduating class that included Mitch Ryder, The Sonics and The MC5. Acknowledging that he also couldn’t fathom it was nearly 38 years ago he produced “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” his first hit single, Seger, proceeded to play the 1969 nugget with timeless gusto, demonstrating that underneath the sentiments of the monster hits that came later was a rock veteran who could still snap to the basics and make it sound raw.
Like a certain auto manufacturer his song “Like a Rock” once represented (and was not performed Thursday), Seger represents solid, no-frills, reliable rock and soul, a quotient that continues to make shows like this sell out many years after he dominated the charts. The reason has less to do with what he brings to the table (no surprises there) than with a core spirit mainstream rock has lacked since it splintered into a hybrid of genres and MTV made ironic detachment a cultural standard.
Seger made repeated jabs at his age — “sweet 16’s turned 61,” he adlibbed for a laugh during “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” — but time seemed to freeze over the span of the 25 songs played. If the haircuts (feathered coifs, mullets, man ponytails) of his band didn’t make this clear, than the rotation of black headbands Seger strapped to his head did. Even though his staple hit “Old time Rock and Roll” wished for the uncomplicated days of the 45-single, the band’s choreographed moves and a mid-song clap-along made that fantasy not so tantalizing.
What makes Seger’s songs so endurable is that, like Steven Speilberg’s Hollywood suburbia, they articulate the mundane details of everyday life and attend to them with romantic optimism. He’s a sincere populist and sang each song while smiling. His 15-member band (including the four-member Motor City Horns) provided a wide, cheery sound, faithfully replicating every recorded note. On “Night Moves,” even the famous silences were perfectly timed. The new — and quite good — songs of “Face the Promise” (Capitol), his recent album, also went for the familiar, mostly because they derived from the same source.
Seger played piano for his ballads, strummed an acoustic guitar and when his hands were free, he struck the same clunky dance moves anyone in his audience would have matched. “I’m older now, but still running against the wind,” he sang. Whether or not that was the case wasn’t up for discussion. So, once more, he answered with a smile.