John Oates of Hall & Oates on Playing Small Shows and Living in Colorado

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Hall & Oates is performing tonight at Red Rocks. As the most commercially successful twosome in rock, Daryl Hall and John Oates have been part of the mainstream musical landscape since at least the time of their second album, 1973's Abandoned Luncheonette. And unlike much of the music of their '70s peers, their catalogue has held up remarkably well, with an appeal to audiences across a broad age range. John Oates attributes this cross-generational popularity to quality songwriting rooted in early R&B, blues and rock influences.

Much of the band's story Oates will relate in his upcoming book on his own life and the life of the band. Tentatively scheduled to be published around Christmas 2016, the book will talk about how Hall & Oates got signed to Atlantic through the direct advocacy of legendary record producer Arif Mardin, who produced the band's first two records. It will also discuss how the two artists hired Todd Rundgren to produce their third album, the 1974 experimental rock offering War Babies.

Long before any of that, Hall and Oates played in various bands in Philadelphia. They knew of each other because at one point, both of their bands had a single on Philadelphia radio. Both played the circuit of small venues on the Jersey Shore and at classic Philadelphia coffeehouses like the Second Fret and the Main Point. And both were not entirely satisfied with their early musical experiences.

“[Daryl] was in a band that was kind of created in the studio and wasn't really a band,” says Oates. “He wasn't comfortable with that. I was sitting in with blues bands and playing my solo acoustic stuff. Nothing was really clicking with either of us individually. We thought of working together as a kind of alternative to that and maybe we could have some fun and do something casually. There was no master plan, no long-term goal.”

Those were humble early aims for one of the most popular, and artistically respectable, outfits in the history of popular music.

It was also around the time that the two met, in the late '60s, that Oates made an early visit to his future part-time home of Aspen. In the '70s, a friend offered him a place to stay while Oates was spending time in Colorado. He currently splits his time between Woody Creek and Nashville. 

“So I took him up on that, and I started coming out here to ski, and I made friends,” says Oates. “Then I bought a condo I used here and there. I got divorced in the late '80s and moved into the condo and left the East Coast completely. From there I got remarried, had a kid and got a house and never left. So I've been in Colorado a long time.”

While living in the Aspen area, Oates put together the Stories Behind the Songs concert series at the Wheeler Opera House, and during the course of four shows established a high-quality event still remembered fondly by locals. Even though the series is long in the past, Oates still regularly performs low-key shows across the country and even in Colorado, as he did recently at Steve's Guitars in Carbondale, and will at the Rendezvous Music Festival in Beaver Creek on September 12. Though the appeal may be obvious, why does one of rock music's most popular songwriters still enjoy playing smaller events?

“I love the authenticity and immediacy of it,” he says. “There's no fourth wall. You're sitting there and you have a guitar. You sing and play a song. To me, it's the ultimate test of the song's quality. If you can pull it off that way and it comes over, that means that the song is inherently good. It doesn't require production, it doesn't require staging or sleight of hand to make it happen. It's kind of like being a standup comic; you're out on an island and it's all on you. In a way it's very freeing, and in a way it's very intimidating, because you have to carry the entire load yourself.”

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