Doobie Brothers weren’t Aretha, but they were really good

“We are not Aretha Franklin,” announced Doobie Brothers’ guitar Patrick Simmons early in Wednesday’s headlining concert at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival.

“We are not Aretha Franklin,” announced Doobie Brothers’ guitar Patrick Simmons early in Wednesday’s headlining concert at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival.

He was stating the obvious, but evidently aware that his band had been booked as a next-to-last-minute replacement for the Queen of Soul, who cancelled a string of dates for medical reasons.

“I wish she was here,” Simmons added. “I won’t say we’re going to fill in for her because no one can.”

True, and yet the guitarist and his fellow rock survivors went on to deliver their own kind of spine-tingling experience, based on sweet harmonies, a wall of guitars, two monster drummers and of course, some of the most recognizable rock songs of all time.

Although singer Michael McDonald is not touring with this incarnation of the Doobies, the current lineup sounds great, having fattened up the instrumentation and the multi-part harmonies. Simmons and longtime bandmate Tom Johnston traded off on lead vocal duties, both handling the job easily.

The band opened with the high-energy boogie of the nugget, Jesus Is Just Alright, stretched out with a bit of a jam, and followed by the equally irresistible Rockin’ Down the Highway and Take Me In Your Arms.

There were songs spanning several eras of the band’s career, including a few from the latest album, World Gone Crazy, that fared well at the hands of the extended lineup, which also included a showy sax player and a dynamic keyboardist.

In all, it was a high-energy, crowd-pleasing show, but you wouldn’t have known it by observing the crowd. Up front, several hundred sat in their chairs until a late-show blast through Taking it to the Streets finally got a few of them up dancing.

Opening the night was British-born soul singer James Hunter, who first played an Ottawa festival several years back, demonstrating plenty of raw power as a soul-shredding vocalist. He still has that power, judging by a triumphant set in the park on Wednesday, but you can tell it’s been a long road. Life has left an extra grit to his voice, and he makes the most of every ounce, channeling even more James Brown in the intensity of his emotion-filled wail.

Hunter is also a terrific guitarist with an old-school tone, and is smart to surround himself with a marvelous band, consisting of musicians on organ, standup bass, drums and a pair of saxophones. They tore through a great set, generous with solos, as well as stellar ensemble playing, the band restrained but forceful enough to match the level of the charismatic Brit’s singing and playing.

However, despite his best efforts to get people up dancing,the audience remained seated in their folding chairs in neat rows in front of the stage. At one point, Hunter expressed his hope that a fast song, One Way Love, might put a fire under “all you buggers that are sitting down.” They didn’t budge.

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