The setting: The El Rey Theatre, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, spring 1997. The occasion: a record-release shindig for Boz Scaggs' Come On Home, his first album since 1994, his third since 1980's Hits! The crowd: gimme-gimme industry types moving restlessly from first-floor show to second-floor buffet, listening between bites of free nosh. They pay attention, but just barely, as the St. Mark's boy plays the new shit--the old shit, actually, the Sonny Boy Williamson and Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker hand-me-downs left over from Boz's North Texas childhood, songs learned and loved back when he and Little Stevie (Miller) took aim as the Marksmen at frat shindigs.
They wanted the hits--or the Hits!, those famous and familiar make-out classics and black-tie blues. When Scaggs launched into "Lowdown," riding that bah-day-UMP bass line right down Wilshire, the audience seemed to come alive; when he pulled "Miss Sun" and "Breakdown Dead Ahead" out of his pleated hip pocket, they nearly came out of their skins. He closed the set with "Lido Shuffle," and not a single soul sent for the valet-parking guy a second before it ended. This was the Boz they knew and adored--the elegant chanteur who owned Top 40 radio during the late '70s, the soul man whose finest moments (with Steve Miller and on his self-titled 1971 solo debut, the latter recorded in Muscle Shoals with rock sycophant Jann Wenner producing) paled in comparison with his biggest ones (Slow Dancer and the immortal Silk Degrees). They wanted the pink jacket with sleeves pushed to the elbows, the pretty-boy stare, the cum-on come-ons, not the nostalgic warblings of a bluesman who couldn't break a sweat in a sauna.
That crowd should be mighty pleased with Scaggs' latest, Dig, which plays like Silk Degrees redux; the new disc even re-teams Scaggs with David Paich some 25 years after the twosome turned up to turn down Silk Degrees. (Dig also digs up the likes of Danny Kortchmar and Greg Phillinganes, men as synonymous with '70s hit pop as James Taylor, the Eagles and Stevie Wonder, with whom they worked.). Dig is shot through with satin-sheened blues-pop sung at such a distance that Boz needs a telescope just to read the lyrics. With most performers, that'd be an insult, but Scaggs is the rare magician who can imbue his thousand-yard-stare cool with much-needed warmth; he's remote but never detached. And though the new disc is bereft of the instant-classic Hit Single that made his a household name even in the homes of people who didn't buy records, it's reassuring to discover that Scaggs need not pander to play (this, despite the ill-advised forays into hip-hop that stick out like a flashlight in pitch black). It's a trip down the middle of the road with the side excursion to the occasional after-hours soiree ("Tonight we party, tonight we're dancing," he sings like a man who barely moves a muscle. "Yeah, we're talking the ultimate smash of a lifetime") or Vegas, where "luck is in the air" for all but Scaggs, who's "just another deadbeat loser." Yeah, as if.