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Long-runnin' Doobies still connect with their fans

It’s not for that long that the Doobie Brothers have been cranking out rock and roll in Northern California — only since 1969.

Forty-three years later, the Doobies continue to play the great music that reaped three multi-platinum albums, four platinum sets, four gold records, a pair of No. 1 hits and more than 40 million album sales worldwide.

The Doobies hit their peak in the mid-to-late 1970s with top singles “Black Water” (1974) and “What a Fool Believes” (1979), but also had top-10 hits in “Listen to the Music,” “Jesus is Just Alright,” “China Grove” and “Long Train Runnin’.” They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004.

Two of the original members of the band, Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons, remain along with John McFee, who joined up in 1978. They’ll be playing a pair of shows at Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, and at 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23.

Guitarist/vocalist Johnston, 64, took time for a question-and-answer session with the Portland Tribune as the Doobies prepared to start a 15-city tour that began Wednesday in San Diego and concludes Nov. 10 in Las Vegas:

Tribune: You’re making a visit to Lincoln City and to Puyallup, Wash., on your current tour. You’ve played often in this area over the years. Any memories?

Johnston: It depends on which town. Portland? Jacksonville? Eugene? I think we played on a football field in Corvallis — it might have been 1971. It’ll be great to be back up there. I like the Northwest.

Tribune: This is your 38th year as a band, with the five-year hiatus you took in the 1980s. What keeps you motivated after all these years?

Johnston: The music. Playing live. To an extent, recording albums, too, but mostly connecting with a live audience. It’s fun, it’s fulfilling and a great thing to do. It’s something we all really enjoy. And it’s a way to make a living. We’re damn lucky to still be able to go out and do this because we have a following. We put an album out in 2010 (“World Gone Crazy”) that did pretty well. It’s a matter of doing all the things you have to do to stay relevent in this day and age, which is getting to be much different than it used to be.

Tribune: Why are you called the Doobie Brothers? Did you get the name from one of your favorite recreational activities when you started?

Johnston: That’s where the name came from (laughs). Keith Rosen, a guy living in the house on 12th street in San Jose where the band got its start, came up with it. He was doing it as a spoof. At that point we didn’t have a name. We said, “That’s stupid, but we’ll use it since we don’t have anything else.” It was supposed to be temporary, but it never went away.

Tribune: I have a copy of your 1972 album, “Toulouse Street.” That was 40 years ago. Hard to believe?

Johnston: Doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. We’ve been busy the entire time, so it’s hard to conceive that it’s been that long. There’s a reason time has a tendency to blast on by. If you’re working a lot, out doing stuff, you don’t pay attention to much other than that and family. The next thing you know, another year has passed, then another year, 10 years, 20 years. ... Yeah, time’s a weird concept. I still haven’t figured it out.

Tribune: Hit songs on “Toulouse Street” include “Listen to the Music,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway” and “Jesus is Just Alright.” But your two No. 1 singles, “Black Water” and “What a Fool Believes,” were on different albums. Which do you consider your best album?

Johnston: That’s really hard. You can talk to 10 different people and get 10 different answers. I was a big fan of “Stampede” (1975), though it wasn’t our most commercially successful album. I also like the last one we put out. That question is as hard as, “What’s your favorite Doobies song?” One of my favorites is “Dark-Eyed Cajun Woman,” because I’m a blues nut.

Tribune: Your longtime drummer, Michael Hossack, died in March. How has that affected the band?

Johnston: We all miss him. It was a drag. Any time you lose part of the band, it’s tough. (Drummer) Keith Knudsen was the first to go (in 2005). That was a big slam. We were really close friends. I met both Michael and Keith in 1970 at San Mateo in the studio where we cut our first album. We’re like a big family. But the band just keeps trucking on. It’s gotten to the point where we’re the three original guys (Johnston, Simmons and McFee) and then a bunch of people we hire to fill in the spots.

Tribune: When you do shows on your current tour, do you try to do most of your major hits?

Johnston: We end up playing some songs at every show. If you don’t, you hear about it loud and clear. The rest of the set, it’s up to the band to decide each night. It is good to change it up and play different stuff. We have a huge catalog of tunes to choose from. It’s just finding the time to rehearse, and building a new set.

Tribune: What do you think when you hear your songs from as far as 40 years ago back still getting air play over the radio?

Johnston: It’s rewarding. I’m grateful for that. It’s good the songs have stood the test of time in terms of quality. It speaks volumes in terms of the music. In many ways, we’re the quintessential American band. Our music is a conglomerate of blues, rhythm and blues, folk blues, finger-picking kind of things and rock and roll. Stick all that together, that’s what makes the Doobies who we are.

Tribune: “World Gone Crazy” was your first album in a decade. I enjoy “Young Man’s Game,” which you wrote. Is music a young man’s game?

Johnston: I don’t know it’s an age-driven thing to play music. It’s an age-driven business as far as the media goes, absolutely. But actually playing? Not at all. All the musicians on the planet are not 20. A lot of older guys are flat-out incredible. That song is kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing, one man’s observation who has been in the business for a long time. I’m saying, “If we hadn’t done this and the guys before us hadn’t done that, you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing now.”

Tribune: On that album is a song, “Don’t Say Goodbye,” featuring Michael McDonald, who was with the group for several years in the ‘70s and ‘80s before he went out on his own. What is the band’s relationship with McDonald?

Johnston: We don’t see Michael very often, but it’s good. He’s got his own thing going on. He’s out touring with Boz Scaggs and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan.

Tribune: You had some health issues in the mid 1970s, which caused you to leave the band temporarily.

Johnston: I had a very severe bleeding ulcer. I’ve never had any problems with it since, but it put me out for about a year. That’s when Michael became a major singer and songwriter in the band. He was brought in to fill in for me. Pat and I were sharing vocals to that point. Michael came in an unknown, but he pretty much blew everyone out of the water with the quality of songs on “Takin’ It to the Streets” (1976). I wound up leaving the band for about 10 years soon after that. What got us back touring was Keith asking us if we’d do a show for benefit for Vietnam Vets in 1989. We haven’t stopped once since then.

Tribune: How has the Doobie Brothers music changed over the years?

Johnston: What we do on stage hasn’t changed at all. The biggest change was with the last album. It’s the direction of the tunes. I wrote some of the songs on keyboard, which I normally don’t do for the band. I wrote “Law Dogs” on the slide (guitar) — first time I’ve ever done that. Pat wrote several songs with Willie Nelson (who sings on “I Know We Won”) that went in a completely different direction for the band. The song he did with Michael was almost jazz-like. We completely redid “Nobody,” our first single back in 1971. We took it apart. The drums are different. The picking part John came up with is different in a big way.

Tribune: How much longer will the band go?

Johnston: That’s not something I would attempt to call. At this point, we’re doing 85 to 90 shows a year. As long as it’s fun, I’m sure we’ll still be doing it.

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