Hall and Oates have dropped “Kiss On My List” and “Private Eyes,” a pair of No. 1 singles, from their concert playlist. They’ve formed a 10-piece “acoustic” band and, though they’re not sticklers on this one, prefer to be billed as Daryl Hall & John Oates.
When the duo performs at the Sangamon County Fair Wednesday, longtime fans of the group’s blue-eyed soul may not be astonished by the music’s stripped-down sound. “Change of Season,” the duo’s most recent (and 17th) album, marked a determined effort to return to their roots.
“We started out as an acoustic act in 1971,” Hall says in a phone interview. “In 20 years, we had only one period of what I’d call pop/commercial music and that was the early ’80s. So we’re not taking people quite as much by surprise as, say, Paula Abdul doing an acoustic album.”
Trouble is, the public’s immediate impression of Hall and Oates has been molded by a relentless string of bouncy hit singles from the early ’80s.
With 17 Top 10 hits, they’re the most successful recording duo in history, according to Billboard magazine.
Still, while recording “Change of Season,” Hall, 41, didn’t have an eye aimed at the pop charts.
“The only way to make a pop album would have been to make a real machine-oriented, urban dance record or a metal album,” he says. “I didn’t expect to have megasales for this album, but the record has gone gold (with more than 500,000 copies sold). Selling records is important, but so is what you’re selling.”
Hall says his relationship with Oates is “stronger now than it was 10 years ago,” while the pair struggles to regain a foothold in the market. Disappointing commercial response followed the releases of Hall’s 1986 solo album and the pair’s “Ooh Yeah!” LP in 1988.
“John comes a lot more forward on this tour than previous ones. I look at our relationship as more like (Mick) Jagger and (Keith) Richards as far as our stage presence when we’re playing electric rock n’ roll. When we’re sitting with our acoustic guitars, it’s closer to 50-50.”
After performing in 2,000- and 3,000-seat theaters last winter, Hall and Oates are slated to play at less-than-elaborate venues, like county fair grandstands, this summer. Upon hearing about the Sangamon County Fair’s remote location in New Berlin, Hall didn’t waver in his enthusiasm.
“In some ways, playing with a cornfield in the background is appropriate for this kind of acoustic tour. I live on a farm, so that’s where a lot of these songs were written,” he says.
“The other day we performed at an outdoor festival in Texas, where every 20 minutes or so, a train went by about 15 feet from the stage. We saw the opening act have trouble with it, but we just played (James Brown’s) `Night Train’ every time it went past.”
Hall and Oates’ current tour stretches the limits of acoustic music.
“We want to do something that has power. Everything is acoustically generated, so we have drums, saxophone, percussion, violin, cello, two grand pianos, an upright bass and guitars. It can be a large sound,” Hall says. “People are plesantly surprised.”
Bassist T-Bone Wolk, a longtime Hall and Oates band member (and part of the “Saturday Night Live” house band), won’t be touring with them this summer. He has been replaced by former Cars bassist Elliot Easton.
Hall says the show’s songlist contains a healthy portion of the group’s most popular selections.
He commented freely when asked to discuss the pair’s biggest hits:
“Sara Smile” – “It holds up as much, if not more, than any song we’ve done. We have never stopped playing it live since it was released (in 1976).”
“She’s Gone” – “John and I went through broken-up relationships at the same time, so it was an easy song to write.”
“Rich Girl” – “It was written about an heir to a fast-food fortune who lost his mind in the late ’60s. It was originally called, `Rich Guy,’ but that didn’t sound right.”
“Kiss On My List” – “It was written by my girlfriend’s sister. I recorded it as a demo for her to try and get it placed with some performer. But what you hear (on the single) is my original demo. To tell you the truth, `Kiss On My List’ and `Private Eyes’ are two songs that I just don’t care much about.”
“So Close” – “The `unplugged’ version (on `Change of Season’) is a first take. Everyone said, this is a great single, so we redid it (with additional musicians) in Los Angeles. Jon Bon Jovi co-produced it.”
Hall says there are plans to record another Hall and Oates acoustically rich album early next year.
“If you’re going to change,” he says, “it’s going to be a slow process.”
Given the duo’s huge commercial success, is it possible they’ll be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? After all, the Drifters, a vocal group, were recent inductees. Hall doesn’t pause, hinting that they haven’t received enough critical respect to be picked.
“We won’t get in,” Hall says. “We’re not the kind of group voters like.”
(Post-script: Thirteen years later, Hall & Oates were selected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.)