If a great band is stronger than the sum of its parts, then Toto must have supernatural powers.
Forty-four years since the group’s original 1977 formation, after 15 different line-ups, the death of two founding members, legal wrangles over the right to still use the name, and a latter-day revival in the social media age that has seen some of their best-known songs reach the status of universally loved rock standards, Toto are now showing that the intervention of a global pandemic is nothing they can’t overcome. Living, breathing, multi-part-harmony-singing proof of that came in the shape of their November 2020 livestream show Dogs Of Oz, a stunning showcase for the new line-up of Toto, with whom they plan to tour as soon as conditions around this troubled planet of ours allow.
That show, recorded in an intimate Los Angeles club venue, is now out to buy on DVD/Blu-Ray and as a live album entitled With A Little Help From My Friends, and for a band that had just got together for the first time with the restrictions of Covid to surmount, they sound like they’ve been granted a new lease of life.
Founding member and guitarist Steve Lukather, who now fronts the band and sometimes takes the mic as well as long-time singer and lifelong friend Joe Williams, explains that it was a sheer will to play that has kept him and Joe flying the Toto flag.
“We’re the only ones left that wanna tour!” he laughs, although for this show, as he does semi-regularly, fellow founder and keyboard player David Paich (“Luke’s the president, he’s the CEO,” explains Williams) joined the band for two songs, even though health difficulties mean he’s no longer able to take full part in shows.
The band formed originally from session players in Los Angeles, and they’ve always prided themselves on a consistently high level of musicianship, but elements of this new live seven-piece seem to take that to new heights.
Backing Lukather and Williams are old schoolfriend and former Huey Lewis & The News bassist John Pierce, multi-instrumentalist and Ringo Starr sideman Warren Ham, keyboard players Xavier Taplin (ex-Prince) and Steve Maggiora, plus Snarky Puppy percussion maestro Sput Searight, all of whom get a chance to shine on the new live album.
The trademark Toto vocal harmonies sound particularly bright, which is no accident.
“This configuration is the only [Toto line-up] where everybody can sing,” says Lukather. “The main guys are Joe, Warren and our new guy Steve.
“He sings the crazy high shit when I can’t,” Steve admits. “Basically, when I'm singing a melody or whatever or taking my 60-year-old rest. But you know, the singing stuff on Toto albums is all so incredibly layered and produced. That's the one thing in Toto’s live version that's always a little bit difficult to pull off, because there's always tons of vocals to do.”
The live album and DVD/Blu-ray features songs that Lukather and Williams hope will make up a significant chunk of the setlist the band will tour with when they finally get back on the road, pandemics permitting, later this year.
“What you see in this performance is about half of the show,” says Williams. Both he and Lukather released solo albums this year, songs from which they hope to include along with songs from “deeper into the album cuts” and, of course, the hits that need no introduction.
In recent years, the band’s biggest hit, Africa has been spread virally around the web by new generations of fans to the point where it’s become a global smash all over again. The band don’t play Africa on the new DVD due to licensing issues, but Steve leans into the camera at the end of the show and suggest to viewers, “Come and see us live and we’ll play ‘that song’.”
“There were legal reasons why we didn't do that,” he explains. “We're gonna play the song live, I promise.”
One song they do perform a punchy reading of is Hold The Line, before which Lukather quips, “we’re gonna play this song for you, because we have to.” But he clarifies that this comment was “tongue in cheek” and he admits that while he has his own favourites from the band’s back catalogue, “when you get in front of an audience who loves that music, they go crazy for it and it has a different energy.”
It’s the kind of vibe they’re longing to recapture when they return to touring, hoping to recreate the enthusiastic responses they’ve seen in recent years continue.
“We did a gig in Australia, it was festival time. It was all 18-year-old kids, and they lost their minds! Because we were the only band that really played. Because [with other acts] it’s all on Pro Tools, right?”
We couldn’t possibly guess, but judging by With A Little Help From My Friends, Toto are ready to once again produce a show worthy of one of rock’s most enduring names.