Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Before wrapping up this series, I wanted to acknowledge the recent passing of longtime Toto bassist Mike Porcaro, who succumbed to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) on March 15, 2015. Although he wasn’t there at the beginning, he succeeded original bass player David Hungate after the commercial blockbuster Toto IV, and lent his incredible musicianship to eight Toto studio albums between 1984 and 2006. He was part of a musical dynasty that began with his father, jazz drummer Joe Porcaro, and continued with his brothers (and Toto bandmates) drummer Jeff Porcaro, who passed away in 1992, and keyboardist Steve Porcaro. Mike’s contributions were greatly appreciated by fellow musicians and passionate fans, who always marveled at his funky yet grounding presence. He was the consummate bass player. For their first album of new material in seven years, the same quintet that recorded 1999’s Mindfields (singer Bobby Kimball, guitarist/singer Steve Lukather, keyboardist/singer David Paich, bassist Mike Porcaro and drummer Simon Phillips) returned with the stellar Falling In Between (2006). Joining them this time was keyboardist/singer Greg Phillinganes, who had already made a name for himself as a collaborator with Michael Jackson/The Jacksons, Eric Clapton and many others. Unlike the sprawling Mindfields, which clocked in at 75 minutes, Falling In Between is a comparatively concise 50 minutes, and that brevity makes it an even more satisfying listen for me. I also enjoy the heavier sound on many of the tracks, with Lukather & Phillips asserting themselves throughout, and I continue to marvel at the strength of Kimball’s vocals. He was 58 when they recorded this album and it’s amazing how much he still sounded like the guy who blew fans away three decades earlier with “Hold The Line.” Their musical chops have never been in doubt, but it would be understandable if they just phoned it in so many years into their career. The fact that they continued to stretch themselves is testament to their continued status as musician’s musicians, and the strong songwriting is merely icing on the cake.
♪ “Falling In Between” – One of the heaviest tracks in their discography; big, bright & anthemic with crunchy guitars & Kimball wailing like a man half his age. It’s swirling & psychedelic and contains elements of metal & progressive rock, as well as a hint of Alice In Chains at “I hear voices calling, from the faces never seen.”
♪ “King Of The World” – All the Toto trademarks that made me love them in the first place are on display here: the driving groove, tight guitar work, syncopated rhythm and vocals shared by Paich, Lukather & Kimball. I especially love that bright chorus (“I…was the king of the world”).
♪ “Taint Your World” – A driving, upbeat riff-rocker with Kimball singing at full force. According to Lukather, this was their tribute to Van Halen, and that comparison is easy to hear in the guitar lines and vocal harmonies. I love the various stops & starts, and the syncopated, synth-infused middle section is superb. There’s also a great melody in the pre-chorus (“I suggest you listen up to what I have to say”) and wonderful harmonies in the chorus (“Taint…your…world”).
♪ “Let It Go” – The funky groove & killer guitar work immediate recall their earlier instrumental “Jake To The Bone,” but this song has the added bonus of Phillinganes’ soulful lead vocals. It’s tightly arranged with everyone on fire (especially Paich, Phillips & Lukather), and the harmonies when they sing the title are classic Toto (it couldn’t be any other band).
Other Notable Tracks:
Recorded in Paris, France during the subsequent tour, Falling In Between Live (2007) is another excellent document of Toto in concert. This 2-CD set features essentially the same lineup as Falling In Between with a couple of key exceptions: bass maestro Leland Sklar subbed for Mike Porcaro, who was nursing a hand injury, and Paich had recently retired from touring. The band is augmented by an additional guitarist, Tony Spinner, who even sings lead on “Stop Loving You.” He’s no Joseph Williams but he does a decent job filling in. Of the 23 tracks here, three are solo performances (by Phillinganes, Lukather & Phillips), while the remaining set list spans their entire career, focusing more on the four most recent albums (11 tracks, including 4 from Falling In Between). Casual fans are rewarded with powerful performances of hits like “Rosanna,” “Hold The Line,” “Africa” and “I’ll Be Over You,” while a 6-song medley of “I’ll Supply The Love,” “Isolation,” “Gift Of Faith,” “Kingdom Of Desire,” “Hydra” and “Taint Your World” is aimed at Toto devotees like me. They stretch certain tracks with vamping & jamming but never at the expense of the songs, and the recording quality is top-notch. They sound massive; a combination of progressive rock & metal with non-stop pop melodies. Of the 20 songs, 18 were either Essential or Notable in my discussions of the original albums, so clearly I’m thrilled with the set list and rank this as highly as any of their live releases.
Toto announced that they were splitting up a year later. Mike Porcaro’s illness meant that he would no longer be able to play music and Paich decided to retire from live performances, so Lukather figured that Toto couldn’t go on without the last remaining Porcaro and the man whose songwriting brought them together in the first place. I was disappointed that Toto had come to an end, but at least Lukather continued to release his own excellent solo albums every few years. Then in 2010 they regrouped for some shows to raise money for Mike’s medical treatments, this time with Joseph Williams returning as lead vocalist, Nathan East on bass and Steve Porcaro back in the lineup for the first time in years. This reunion resulted in another concert recording, 35th Anniversary Live In Poland (2014), and it’s further evidence of a band still operating at the highest level. Of the 21 songs included (3 of which are part of a medley), 7 are repeated from Falling In Between Live, while the remainder of the set list went deeper into their catalog for two songs from rarities collection Toto XX (“Goin’ Home” and “On The Run”) and four each from Hydra and Toto IV. There are numerous pleasant surprises, especially Steve Porcaro’s “It’s A Feeling,” the Turn Back track “Goodbye Elenore” and deep Hydra tracks like “St. George And The Dragon,” “White Sister” and “Hydra.” Williams proves once & for all that his vocals are as essential to the Toto sound as Bobby Kimball’s. You can’t go wrong with either of them up front. With 19 of 21 songs either Essential or Notable, this is another indispensable live recording.
When Toto announced in early 2015 that they were preparing to release a new album, the press release stated that “the band personally considers the new album to be the true follow-up to Toto IV, which made the band global superstars.” This sounded like record label hyperbole aimed at connecting the new release with their most commercially successful album, and I tempered my expectations accordingly. The official band lineup was now the quartet of David Paich, Steve Lukather, Joseph Williams and Steve Porcaro, with assistance from original bassist David Hungate and new drummer Keith Carlock, best known for his recent work with Steely Dan. Just a week ago I got my copy of Toto XIV (2015) on the day of release, and I immediately played it a few times. Over the next few days I continued playing it along with Falling In Between to get a sense of the similarities & differences between their two most recent studio offerings. Lukather’s heavy riffing is still there but the album is not as massive-sounding as its predecessor. Co-producer C.J. Vanston helped give them a smoother, more polished sound, and Steve Porcaro wielded his synth magic to add interesting sonic textures throughout the record. The mastering is slightly bright & brittle, suggesting that it was over-compressed during mastering. Audiophiles will likely be turned off, but once you get past those sonic limitations it’s clear that the songwriting & performances are as good as they’ve ever been. I can’t think of many bands whose writing, playing & singing is still so vital after nearly 4 decades.
♪ “Orphan” – Begins with a powerful guitar-and-piano melody, then kicks into gear with Williams belting out “No mother, no father, no sister & no brother.” Lukather plays some cool guitar riffs and he really starts cooking before the song fades out at 3:55. I wish it was a little longer, but that doesn’t detract from my instant love for this track.
♪ “Chinatown” – An immediate highlight; a song written by Paich in the pre-Toto days that was dusted off, updated and arranged to perfection. Paich shares lead vocal duties with Lukather & Williams, alternating lines between them. “Down in Chinatown, whoah-oh-oh” is a great hook. This sounds like early Toto with bits of Steely Dan and a Boz Scaggs-esque groove. Old friend Michael McDonald joins in on vocals as well.
♪ “Great Expectations” – The album ends with its longest track (at just under 7 minutes), co-written & sung by Paich, Williams & Lukather. It’s essentially a progressive rock song with multiple shifts in mood, tempo & instrumentation. They each sing a distinct part, with “I’ve got one million reasons for us to believe” a particular Williams highlight. A true epic with a tremendous Lukather guitar solo, inventive synth breaks and so much more. If this ends up being the final Toto song, they went out on a high note (but hopefully there’s more to come from them in the future).
Other Notable Tracks:
Revisiting the Toto discography has been an absolute joy for me. I’ve been a fan for a long time but it’s amazing how many great songs I had either forgotten or never noticed before. It’s a shame that they continue to be regarded as a “soft rock” band by critics & music lovers when they’ve offered up so many styles over the course of their career. Many of their ‘70s contemporaries like Journey, Foreigner and Styx seem to have been embraced by younger generations of fans much more than Toto, at least in the U.S. I don’t think their reputation is likely to change anytime soon, but if this series opened up some eyes (and ears) then I’m very proud to have played a small part in restoring their rock & roll credentials. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed some of the songs I’ve highlighted throughout these posts.