You likely wouldn’t think of Bob Seger as a visionary. But he’s played that role at a couple of points in his 40-year career.
He was hammering out early-model iron-clad heartland rock from his Michigan base back in the late ‘60s, when Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Tom Petty were still skipping school and ticking off their dads.
And while today even the hippest musicians are eager for the exposure and cash flow generated by putting a song in a TV commercial, back in 1990, when he let Chevrolet use “Like a Rock” to sell trucks, it was anything but cool. Seger made it cool on his own terms by pretty much giving the song to Chevy as a way to help his hometown’s beleaguered auto industry.
At the Forum on Thursday, Seger, 61 and sporting silver hair and spectacles, represented another notion that could benefit many artists: Go away for a while.
Seger did. He sat out the last decade, concentrating on family life, working up a handful of songs he could feel good about releasing, letting his old fans miss him, letting some new fans discover him -- a more commendable course than the standard of cranking out a new album every few years with somewhere between adequate and negligible sales and going out on the road regularly to play for folks who only want to hear the old songs anyway.
The latter probably remains true in any case, and Seger didn’t disappoint anyone Thursday on this stop of his first tour since 1996. His set was heavy on the oldies, reaching back as far as 1968’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and concentrating largely on ‘70s staples, including churning rockers “Fire Down Below” and “Hollywood Nights,” evocatively wistful ballads “Night Moves” and the still-superb “Beautiful Loser” and popular backward-looking novelties “Horizontal Bop” and, of course, “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
It’s not so much that these songs seemed refreshed, but rather they were trustworthy, reliable, enduring, all the things Seger has long represented -- “Like a Rock” and such (though last year he swore off Chevy due to environmental concerns and didn’t play that song Thursday). That was underscored by the current 14-member edition of his Silver Bullet Band, featuring bassist Chris Campbell and sax player Alto Reed (who have been with Seger since 1969 and 1971, respectively) as well as keyboard player Craig Frost (since 1980) and drummer Don Brewer (of Grand Funk Railroad and part of the same Detroit rock generation as Seger). And the leader himself, though not exactly athletic, has kept his voice in prime, gruff shape.
The six new songs he played, from last year’s “Face the Promise” album, stood up well in the company of the old favorites. The title song rocked as hard as anything else this night, “No More” drew a reflective line in the sand, and 90-proof country-rocker “Real Mean Bottle” let him pay honor to the song’s writer (Vince Gill), its inspiration (Merle Haggard) and Seger acolyte Kid Rock, who walked onto the Forum stage to reprise the duet role from the album.
The new songs also fit in easily in terms of subject matter -- let’s face it, most Seger songs are variations on a few themes: travelin’, passin’ through and movin’ on. But the new ones, especially in the context of this convincing set, added a twist: He’s now thinking of his destination. Guess a decade off has spurred the backward-looker to face forward.