Huey Lewis & the News & Review
A CN&R reporter gets to the heart of rock ‘n’ roll
Huey Lewis & the News was a big part of my childhood soundtrack. The group’s nondescript appearance and inoffensive music were perfect for a wee lad of 9 who wasn’t quite old enough to embrace punk rock and new wave.
It wasn’t long before I outgrew the band’s sanitized pop and realized it was more suited to my parents’ tastes. But when recently asked whether I wanted to cover the group’s two-night stint at the Sierra Nevada Big Room, I couldn’t resist the chance to satisfy my nostalgic side and, of course, have a little fun with it.
Sure, the bar band-turned-pop superstars have been relegated to the fairgrounds and Indian casinos circuit for some time, but this was Huey Lewis. This was the guy who brought us albums like Sports and Fore! and churned out countless radio and MTV hits like “Heart of Rock and Roll” and “Power of Love.”
The real news, however, was the fact that the entire event was being recorded and filmed in high definition for a Rhino Records 25th-anniversary DVD called Live @ 25. And from what I heard they were sparing no expense.
The production was two months in the making and dwarfed anything the Big Room had ever hosted, costing in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars and involving at least 90 crew members.
A brewery employee told me that people were lined up at 5 a.m. in the freezing cold the morning tickets went on sale. The Big Room’s capacity is 350, but a total of 800 tickets were sold for both nights—and in just a few hours.
This was going to be a big deal. The News & Review thought it would be a perfect opportunity for a behind-the-scenes look at how a former superstar puts together such an event.
But when we asked Big Room Manager Bob Littell if we could cover the event, he said no, that Lewis’ company was in charge of the show and authority was out of his hands. Photos wouldn’t be allowed, he said, nor would the media have access to the backstage area. He could get us tickets to review the show, but that was all.
That’s not what we had in mind. We wanted a real story, not just a review. We wanted to see Huey Lewis’ operation in action. And we wanted more than that. We wanted to see the man himself, to talk with him—maybe even get his autograph.
To do that we’d have to reach his inner sanctum. It was not going to be easy. Could we pull it off?
The night before the first show, News & Review photographer Tom Angel and I walked up the stairs leading to the Big Room. Invited or not, we were determined to get something for our story.
As it happened, Peter Berkow, who produces and directs the nationally syndicated PBS television show Sierra Center Stage at the Big Room, showed up at the same time. I’ve known Berkow for years; he was my first journalism professor at Shasta College. We started chatting, and as he walked in we followed.
It wasn’t long before Littell spotted Tom with his camera and, gesturing frantically, waved us over.
“Tom, I told you guys, no cameras.”
Tom tucked the small digital camera back in its case, and we agreed to leave it there.
We watched as crew members did their jobs with the diligence of worker ants. They had already been there 17 hours, setting up the recording and video equipment, monitors and lights.
In addition to a curtained backdrop and extra lighting for the stage, eight cameras were brought in to capture the action, including two 20-foot jibs, which are boom-mounted cameras that would swivel and swoop down over the audience.
Things appeared to be running smoothly. The only matter left was a 7 p.m. sound check, for which Huey Lewis & the News would be arriving from the Oxford Suites any minute. Tom decided to go outside and try to get a shot of Lewis as he came over from the hotel.
I saw Littell walking in my direction, and my heart sank. I figured I was about to get the boot. Instead, Littell told me that, if I was going to stick around, I had to keep my notepad in my pocket.
I was in.
The band members trickled into the room and gradually made their way to the stage. Lewis was the last to arrive. He strode in looking svelte and tanned, wearing a black leather jacket. The years appeared to have been kind to him.
While the News banged away on their instruments and the levels were adjusted, Lewis patrolled the room before spotting the stack of pizza boxes left by the crew members. By the time he devoured the last remaining slice of pizza, the band was ready to get the sound check underway.
The band played through a few classics. Lewis decided they should go out to the sound recording truck and listen to the playback, do a couple more tunes and then call it a night. The rest of the guys agreed, and they disappeared through a door to the left of the stage.
I figured I had seen enough for the night. Besides, I didn’t want to push my luck. So I made my way toward the same exit the band had gone through. I went down some stairs, but instead of locating the exit I found a 50-foot RV surrounded by some canopies and the recording truck. Some tables were arranged with plates of cold cuts and vegetables and a tin basket full of bottles of beer, water and sodas on ice.
So I did the logical thing—instead of leaving I grabbed a cold one and ate some cheese and crackers. Here I was, drinking an ice cold Celebration Ale with Huey Lewis & the News while they listened to the playback. I didn’t ask any questions. I just sat back and enjoyed the brew.
Things were already bustling by the time I arrived the night of the second show. People were looking good. The beer was flowing. And Huey Lewis & the News were about to take the stage.
The jibs patrolled the room like a couple of robotic dinosaurs. I looked through one of the monitors and could see that the camera made the Big Room appear enormous.
It wasn’t long before the sound of the mechanized heartbeat pulsed through the P.A. and Huey Lewis emerged from behind the curtain to the opening of “The Heart of Rock and Roll.”
While I found myself laughing at the fact that it was 2004 and Huey Lewis was playing his radio hits in Chico. The scene was ridiculous really, but you couldn’t argue with the fact that everyone was having a great time.
“Bob warned me about you guys,” Lewis told the crowd after the first few numbers. “You guys are professionals.”
It was as if time had stood still. One by one, the band effortlessly blasted through such classics as “If This Is It” and “I Want a New Drug.” It sounded like a giant jukebox had been placed in the room. The performance was a perfect amalgamation of Huey Lewis & the News’ years of experience and the stellar acoustics and gleaming surfaces of the Big Room.
The members of the crowd did their best to make sure they got caught on film, and the band played a solid two-hour set, including a couple of encores.
“I’m Huey Lewis and you just heard the News,” Lewis said before disappearing behind the curtain for the last time.
After the show, some concert-goers were issued passes that would allow them to stay in the Big Room and chat with the band.
Lewis’ tour manager told us that Lewis was tired and wouldn’t be coming up from the VIP area, but I was determined to try to get an interview with him.
Embellishing a little, I told the tour manager that I didn’t want to disturb Mr. Lewis, but this was a big deal for a small town like Chico. Wasn’t there something he could do?
A few minutes later he came back, gave my friend and I a nod and a wink and slipped us two “after show” passes. Somehow, I had made it to the VIP area again.
A small crowd gathered as Lewis sipped a glass of red wine and signed autographs.
I noticed he was giving batting tips to a young kid, and after he made his way around, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk a little baseball. Neither could he.
He told me he was explaining to the kid how he had to throw his hands at the ball. Lewis set his wine down on more than one occasion to demonstrate the perfect swing.
After indulging myself by talking about the swing of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds, I steered the conversation back to music and the upcoming live DVD.
Lewis confessed that they could have played in L.A. but that they chose Chico because the band was looking for something a little more relaxed.
“It’s really because of this room,” he said. “And the people—they’re real people with real emotions, and I can play to them.”
Funny thing, though: In the midst of all the music and baseball talk, I forgot to ask for an autograph.