A few songs into Huey Lewis & The News’ show at Red Butte Garden Sunday night, listening to the group’s bar-band brand of pop-rock, I came up with the following thesis: Huey Lewis & The News’ ’80s popularity and ubiquity on MTV is, in fact, NOT proof that MTV in the Reagan years was full of saccharine, inoffensive pablum, but rather Lewis and Co.’s success was evidence that MTV was NOT obsessed with youthful good looks and disposable pop swill.
Hear me out.
Looking at Huey Lewis & The News on stage Sunday, and recalling those monster hits and videos that seemed to make them one of the biggest bands in the world for about five years, they are nothing more, and nothing less, than a highly competent classic-rock band with real respect for the American musical canon. It was true then, when the band’s straightforward brand of rock and roll sold millions of records at the same time as far more “cool” and “modern” bands like Duran Duran or Depeche Mode, and it’s true now as the band continues to throw plenty of classic covers in its live shows, alongside its own considerable catalog of chart-toppers.
It’s just a theory, and Lewis and The News’ fluffy pop tunes leave plenty of time for the mind to wander–it doesn’t take a lot of intellectual engagement to appreciate, say, “Heart of Rock and Roll”–the show-opener–or “I Want a New Drug.” Sunday night, the covers that showed Lewis and The News’ roots included Solomon Burke’s “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” the Drifters’ “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and the Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” all delivered early in the show as the crowd stood on its feet and danced.
I was actually a little annoyed that the show relied so much on covers, considering Lewis and The News’ popular heyday coincided with my first years of music geekdom. I never bought one of their albums, but why would you? When you are a young teenager listening to Top 40 radio and watching MTV for all your musical education, you heard PLENTY of Huey Lewis & The News. And those were the songs I was hoping to hear Sunday night, not the best wedding cover band ever.
Thankfully, Lewis mixed it up enough to keep me, and the crowd, engaged. Backed by an excellent horn section and a couple of female backup singers, Lewis & The News knocked out strong versions of their own songs “Small World” and “Jacob’s Ladder,” as well as an excellent take on “Heart and Soul,” one of the band’s earliest hits and still one I legitimately enjoy as one of my fonder memories of early MTV programming.
Lewis was the definition of an old pro as a frontman, chatting up the crowd, introducing the band and talking about their 34-year history playing music together. And the crowd ate it up, staying on its collective feet throughout–something you don’t see every show at Red Butte Garden.
How about next year we get a Duran Duran show for another ’80s flashback at Utah’s best summer venue, and see how the experience compares?