On the final leg of their 40 Tours Around the Sun trek, Toto’s talent is almost “unfair”
Over the years, Toto has become a kind of meme for misunderstood rock groups. Perhaps “Africa” is the perfect microcosm for the group itself. Just like Toto, the song is pervasive in pop culture, objectively impressive, but never really fit anywhere. That could lead one to underestimate the group. But here’s a warning to any band who thinks they can take the mantle from Toto: the deck is stacked against you.
With a lead guitarist who played on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, and sessioned with almost every rock artist since the 1970’s; a percussionist who’s heard on thousands of records; and a vocalist whose father wrote the damn Star Wars theme… music critics were sorely mistaken in the 1980’s to second guess this group. Granted, that was before the latter Joseph Williams joined as vocalist, but the group–then consisting of all three Porcaro brothers –were still rock-solid session musicians with thousands of records between them. OK. Toto history lesson over.
It’s almost unfair, the amount of talent on the stage last night (Wed, Oct 16th) at Bergen PAC. I challenge any guitarist to follow Steve Lukather’s aching solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Or keyboardist Dominique Taplin’s soaring, unnamed piano solo. (Making my point about the unfairness of it all, he learned the Toto concert in two days to step in for an ill David Paich. Taplin, who is 27, also toured with Prince, who passed away in 2016…you do the math.)
Opening with “Devil’s Tower and “Hold the Line,” Toto breezed through their first five songs, before finally jamming on “English Eyes” and the instrumental “Jake to the Bone.” They closed out their first electric set with what Lukather called the “quintessential Toto song,” “Rosanna.” I have multiple live recordings of this one, and they were note-perfect in person. Again. Unfair.
While the crowd was reeling with enthusiasm over “Rosanna,” the crew brought on chairs for five of the band members to sit: Lukather, Williams, Steve Porcaro, wind instrumentalist and vocalist Warren Ham, and bassist Shem von Schroeck. Over the next 15 minutes, the band played snippets and told stories about songs including “Georgy Porgy,” “Human Nature” (Incredibly high vocals courtesy of von Schroeder), and “I’ll be Over You.” Described as an acoustic set merely because Lukather used an acoustic guitar, the sound was as full and as rich as you would expect from Toto.
The third act of this concert could only be described as the jam session. Kicked off by the aforementioned Taplin’s piano solo, the band ran off stage after the final beat of “Stop Loving You,” as if making an exit cue in a musical while Taplin launched into his piece.
The highlight of this section was the band’s “Dune (Desert Theme)” which appeared in the iconic 1980’s film of the same name. The instrumental was accented by an incredibly timed light show. But every song had jam-session coda that never veered into gratuitous territory. Even when they are rocking out, these session musicians know how to keep it tight.
Even on the 11-minute long “Africa,” percussionist Lenny Castro’s solo itself was three minutes. But it was three minutes of artistry. Joseph Williams vamped with the audience, and the forever-shredder Steve Lukather played his brains out with not one, but two “fucked up” (his words) shoulders.
Every song last night was an event. Cinematic in scope, Toto’s music stirred the emotions of the crowd all night long. One could say there’s no room for subtlety at a Toto concert, but that would belie the complexity of the music itself.
The best thing about this job is that it allows me to dig into the world of every band I cover. I immerse myself, almost to the point of obsession. But the cool thing in doing so is that I get to make up my own mind about the music. Then I take key to computer, and hopefully dispel the preconceived notions for readers. Toto is the perfect example of this.
Discovering that this band is much more than “Africa,” and its myriad pop culture references, has been an enlightening experience. Steve Lukather recently recounted how the music journalists of 30 years ago were unkind to Toto’s genre-bending, sweeping tomes, in favor of the emerging punk scene. (We all know how that went.)
But if the near sell-out response to the final dates of the 40 Tours Around the Sun trek is any indication, history — and the band’s fans, the only people who matter — will finally give Toto their due. (Lord knows Weezer has, but that’s another article.)