Bay Area music stars shine in tribute to Norton Buffalo
Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Correspondent
January 25, 2010
Nobody ever knew anybody like Norton Buffalo. It was his gift to make anyone he met feel like his friend. He played on more than 180 albums, and every one of the musicians who hired him thought he was their friend.
When Buffalo was diagnosed with lung cancer in September after getting off his summer tour with the Steve Miller Band, his longtime bandleader and close friend talked to Buffalo about putting together a benefit concert.
Three days before he died, a few short weeks later, Buffalo OKd Miller’s plans to bring some of Buffalo’s friends together for a pair of concerts that took place over the weekend at Oakland’s recently refurbished Fox Theater.
He died knowing that friends and admirers like Miller, the Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Musselwhite, George Thorogood and Huey Lewis agreed to play the shows. He told Miller he wanted the proceeds to pay off his mortgage.
Over the 33 years Buffalo played in his band, Miller did more than 5,000 shows with Buffalo, singing every song together. Miller introduced Buffalo every night as “my partner in harmony.” Buffalo’s death punched a hole in his heart. His widow, Lisa Flores, visited Miller’s hotel room Saturday afternoon and gave him Buffalo’s signature hat, scarf and his favorite harmonica.
“This is hard,” he said, standing on the side of the stage after introducing the opening act, Buffalo’s own band, the Knockouts.
Buffalo’s baby sister Josephine walked up to Miller on the side of the stage and introduced herself. Miller held her in a close embrace and they talked intensely. “I can’t get my head around the fact that he’s dead,” he told her.
Who can? All night, a procession of his musician colleagues took the stage and spoke of his spirit, his generosity, his talent, his goofy humor, his extraordinary love of mankind. Bonnie Raitt delivered extravagant, heartfelt praise and then launched a wrenching bottleneck blues on acoustic guitar, “I Can’t Get Over You.”
After her performance, she huddled with Miller on the side of the stage, their foreheads practically touching, arms over each other’s shoulders. Miller emerged weeping. At that exact moment, Elvin Bishop walked up to Miller with a small gift: a bottle of homemade hot sauce from peppers Bishop grows in his Lagunitas backyard. Miller uncapped the bottle and took a swig, as Bishop’s eyes widened.
“I’ve never seen it done like that,” Bishop said.
“It stopped me from crying,” said Miller, smiling.
Friends of Norton Buffalo
Friends of Norton Buffalo # 2
Bonnie R, Roy Rogers 1-22-10
Friends of Norton Buffalo #3
Steve Miller Band & Bonnie Raitt @ The Fox Theatre
Steve Miller Band with Bonnie Raitt & Charlie Musselwhite- Crossroads
All the musicians paid their own expenses – travel, hotel, food – and some went to extraordinary lengths to be there. Ricky Peterson, Raitt’s keyboard player, missed the Friday show because of weather conditions in Minnesota, where he lives. Marin County utility keyboard man Audie de Lone substituted, but Peterson was there for the second night to play a spectacular keyboard duet with Raitt on “Nick of Time” (Huey Lewis never made it out of snowy Montana).
The shows and silent auction seemed to be on target to raise the $250,000 goal, enough to cover his medical expenses and retire his mortgage.
The five-hour concert laid out a banquet of music. Everybody played with everybody. Bishop joined the Doobie Brothers to sing his song “My Dog” and rattle off some blistering guitar. He came back to play with Miller and add still more blistering guitar. Blues harmonica virtuoso Musselwhite sat in with Raitt, the Doobies and Miller. Raitt traded molten blues guitar solos with the boys – Miller and Bishop – during the Miller band set and sang “Listen to the Music” with the Doobies.
George Thorogood played Bo Diddley with Miller, shaking Buffalo’s maracas. Michael Carabello of the original Santana band took over for Buffalo on congas in Miller’s set. Miller himself played the harmonica part to “Livin’ in the U.S.A.” – like he did before and hasn’t since Buffalo joined the band in 1977.
The party flowed backstage. With a couple hundred sporting backstage passes, old friends were seeing one another for the first time in years in every corner. Freddie Herrera, who ran the Keystone Berkeley nightclub through the ’70s and ’80s, a silver-haired fox about to celebrate his 75th birthday, knelt in front of a bench holding George Thorogood, Elvin Bishop and Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers and hugged all of them at once.
Attorney General Jerry Brown, who as mayor oversaw the downtown Oakland development that the new Fox anchors, wandered around backstage, looking a little like he showed up at the wrong party. Of course, the entire place did reek of marijuana smoke.
Buffalo was everywhere. His friends told each other stories about him. Thorogood told about Buffalo telling him that he went to prisons to give inmates music lessons on different instruments in his spare time. “Spare time?” said Thorogood. When Buffalo wasn’t with Miller, he did dates all over the country with Roy Rogers and when they weren’t working, he played smaller gigs with the Knockouts. When he was home in Paradise (Butte County), he worked in a trio with his wife.
Miller promised Buffalo he would take care of his music. The Steve Miller Band has a new album in the can with Buffalo on every track. The musicians at the Fox talked about making the Norton memorial an annual event. People are only now beginning to get around to understanding what a huge loss this is.
E-mail Joel SelvinSource Copyright ©: SFGate
Solid, blues-soaked all-stars pay loving tribute to the late, great Norton Buffalo
OAKLAND — Nobody wanted it to happen. They all wished there was no need. Yet, they showed up to pay tribute to their fallen comrade Norton Buffalo, who died at age 58 on Oct. 30 after battling lung and brain cancer.
“We are going to miss him,” remarked the Doobie Brothers’ John McFee. “But the idea is for Norton to be here while we’re playing.”
And he was — at least in the hearts and thoughts of the performers and the sold-out audience that turned out to the “Tribute to Norton Buffalo: A Celebration of a Life” concert on Friday night at the Fox Theater in Oakland. The concert — which repeats tonight at the same venue — turned out to be a moving night of music that did justice to the great legacy of the Oakland-born, Richmond-raised harmonica hero.
The cast included Bonnie Raitt, the Doobies, Steve Miller, George Thorogood and Elvin Bishop, as well as many other artists that had worked with Buffalo over the decades. They gave of their time for many reasons — not the least of which was to raise money to help Buffalo’s family with the medical expenses incurred during the harmonicat’s illness. Perhaps the main reason, however, is that they knew Buffalo would have been there for them.
“If there was a good cause,” Maria Muldaur remarked during her time onstage with Bonnie Raitt, “Norton was there.”
That’s one of the reasons Buffalo was so popular in the local music community — by all accounts, he was an extremely generous and giving man. It’s that trait, more than all the platinum records that he played on as a sideman, which defines his legacy. It also explains why organizers were able to easily assemble such an impressive lineup for these tribute shows.
Following an opening set by Buffalo’s old band the Knockouts, Raitt took the stage and performed a blues-soaked set of solid tunes. Raitt, who’d enlisted Buffalo’s services on 1977’s “Sweet Forgiveness,” was joined by guests including Muldaur, harmonica guru Charlie Musselwhite and slide-guitarist-supreme Roy Rogers. Raitt was in fine voice and spirits throughout the set.
“Buff-a-palooza!” she howled to the crowd. “That’s what we got going on.”
The Doobie Brothers, who utilized Buffalo’s mighty talents on their Grammy-winning 1978 album “Minute by Minute,” followed Raitt and turned in what was surely the set of the night. The seven-piece band, which featured two drummers and three guitarists, chugged through a dozen great tunes that, collectively, screamed that the Doobies deserve to be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The group, which was joined by Elvin Bishop for a few numbers, displayed mesmerizing harmonies and ace musicianship throughout the set. Some might’ve forgotten just how many stand out songs the Doobies have in their catalog, but the steady succession of hits performed at the Fox — including “Jesus is Just Alright,” “Listen to the Music,” “China Grove” and “Black Water” — served as a joyous reminder. It was odd, however, that the band shied away from playing the big hits from “Minute by Minute,” given that Buffalo appeared on that album.
The headlining slot was reserved for Buffalo’s best-known collaborator, Steve Miller. The two began making music together in the mid-’70s and Buffalo remained in Miller’s band for the rest of his life.
It was a treat to see Miller, who is accustomed to playing large outdoor amphitheaters, perform in a relatively intimate venue. He certainly provided plenty of bang for the buck by delivering a two-hour set.
Miller was joined by numerous guests, including Raitt and Thorogood. Unfortunately, Huey Lewis, who was scheduled to perform with Miller, didn’t make it. Miller announced that Lewis was stuck in Montana, which was a shame, since it would’ve been fun for fans to see the two Bay Area music legends trade vocals.
As expected, Miller connected most strongly with the audience when he booked through his greatest hits. Thousands of voices joined in the choruses to such favorites as “Take the Money and Run,” “Jet Airliner” and “Jungle Love.”
There was, of course, one voice missing, one that will be missed for years to come.
Read Jim Harrington’s Concert Blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts/.Source Copyright ©: The Mercury News Some more photo’s:
Bay Area music stars shine in tribute to Norton Buffalo But wait, there's more!