The Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston still rocking after all these years | Phoenix New Times

The Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston still rockin’ after all these years

The Doobie Brothers are back on the road and ready to play Phoenix's Footprint Center for the first time.
From left to right: Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, Michael McDonald, and John McFee
From left to right: Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston, Michael McDonald, and John McFee The Doobie Brothers
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The California coast is known for its golden hours, where the sun slides beneath the horizon and into the shadowy ripples of the Pacific Ocean. It’s an optical illusion synonymous with the state. If there was a soundtrack to that scene, it could be orchestrated by The Doobie Brothers, a band just as integral to California’s magical appeal as its weather. But to say the band is only intrinsic to the West Coast is an understatement.

Tom Johnston has been belting out hits and playing guitar in The Doobie Brothers for nearly 40 years. The 75-year-old musician just finished the band’s golden anniversary tour eight months ago and they're already packing up the bus to get on the road again.

“It's just kind of the way you do things these days,” Johnston says about the fast turnaround. “It's your life, man. You go out and you play on the road and entertain people and say, 'Hi, man.'”

The Doobie Brothers will perform on June 26 at Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix. It's their first time taking the stage at the arena, and opening for them this time around will be two legendary artists: Steve Winwood and Robert Cray (with The Robert Cray Band).

Winwood saw some success in the '60s and '70s as a member of other bands like Blind Faith and Traffic, but his solo career in the '80s is what catapulted him to the top of the mainstream pop charts with hits including “Back in the High Life Again” “Roll With It” and “Higher Love.”

When asked how long he and Winwood have been friends, Johnston gave a surprising answer.

“I have to be honest with you,” he admits. “I've only met Steve once in my entire life and I don't really know him that well, I'm just a huge fan of his music.”

Someone he is familiar with is singer Michael McDonald, who contributed his talents to The Doobie Brothers in 1975 after Johnston left to recuperate from a health scare. That eventually led to a full-time gig for McDonald, who carried the band to the top of the charts until the late '70s and early '80s just before the group dissolved due to creative differences.

But all seems to be forgiven and just like last year’s 50th anniversary tour, McDonald is a part of the 2024 tour.

“He's on the new album as well,” adds Johnston. “So it's like all-inclusive.”

When we ask Johnston about the upcoming album, he says it’s fresh from the studio and still in its infancy.

“We haven't come up with a title,” he says via telephone. “I mean, this thing just got finished. So it's pretty fresh. It’s been mixed but it hasn't been mastered yet. So it's in the process of all that post-production stuff. No artwork has been done. I'm not really sure when it's gonna drop, to be honest with you.”

Technology has changed the music business when it comes to releasing an album' things are much different than what it was when The Doobie Brothers released their first in 1971.

It used to be people would buy the product and then go see the band, Johnston says. “Now it’s kind of like, you go out and play and hope they buy the product. A lot of people are just out training to be touring. It's not the atmosphere of the '70s and '60s, '80s, whatever. It's changed a lot.”

The biggest change might be the digital platform. The tunes of yesteryear were played on vinyl or tape and broadcast to transistor radios and car speakers. Today, it’s all digital from start to finish, providing listeners with on-demand convenience.

Johnston is only partially nostalgic for how music was made back then.

“Frankly, it's all digital,” he says. “It all goes through digital mastering and recording. Very few people are using analog tape anymore. I mean, it's still around but it's not a very big thing. And as far as having it on vinyl, I think that's awesome. I wish they had more of it. But the streaming services, I think gives people a wider audience.”

Despite that praise, Johnston says he doesn’t use streaming music services because his house is already hard-wired for sound and he has plenty of physical media to work with.

“I listen to things in my car radio and I listen to stuff here at the house and I play stuff here that I practice with and what have you. So, I've got a lot of places where I listen to music," he explains. "But record companies have changed, records really aren't the thing right now. Even though a lot of people do that, that's just to satisfy a certain niche audience. And it's probably neat but a lot of it is streaming and it's changed the whole business dramatically.”

While their untitled new record is in post-production, it gives them enough time to do their 2024 tour and then possibly prepare for the next one to promote it. One thing Johnston is excited about on this tour is revisiting venues he hasn’t been to in a long time or new ones in familiar cities — like Phoenix, for instance. When the Doobie Brothers make it to Phoenix they will perform at Footprint Center for the first time.

“Phoenix has always been a great town. So I, I look forward to playing there," he says.

However, it doesn’t matter which stage he plays because the combined experience is what he enjoys. The screaming fans, the power of the music and getting caught in the atmosphere of it all is where he loses himself. It’s been that way for decades. His health seems to be good, too. He says he’s not a vegetarian but he tries to avoid red meat and exercises every day. That routine seems to be working, because the musician looks and sounds great.

“I think a lot of it has to do with what we do for a living, to be honest," says Johnston. "I think music is kind of a Peter Pan world. And so as long as you're doing that, I think that kind of helps your mindset as far as how you're looking at everything.”

Whatever is keeping him going, he's really excited about this road trip. He might be more excited to work with the legendary musical guests more than anything else.

“It's gonna be a big deal, this tour should be a lot of fun. I'm really looking forward to it," Johnston says.

The Doobie Brothers. With Steve Winwood and Robert Cray. 7 p.m., Wednesday, June 26. Footprint Center, 201 E. Jefferson St. Tickets start at $19.50 on
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