When Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek died at the age of 74 five years ago, he left an enormous hole in rock & roll. This is undeniable. Manzarek’s keys work was arguably as integral to the Doors sound as Jim Morrison’s sensual drawl, and fans both old and new had been able to experience that first-hand for a few years.
While drummer John Densmore had stayed out of it, Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger had been performing Doors material together again since hooking up as The Doors of the 21st Century (with The Cult’s Ian Astbury) in 2002. The Morrison estate and Densmore didn’t much like that choice of name, so the duo switched to Riders on the Storm, then “Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger of The Doors,” then Manzarek-Krieger.
So nobody had performed more with Manzarek than Krieger, and few were hit harder when he died. And while the guitarist is back out playing Doors songs again, it was a couple of years before he felt comfortable doing that.
“I kept getting calls to play Doors stuff, and then one time, my son Waylon said, ‘Hey, let me sit in on a couple of songs,’” Krieger says.’ “He did, and then about a couple of weeks after that, we get a call. I think it was Dickey Betts who couldn’t play a show in Florida. They called us, I asked Waylon if he wanted to go and do this gig. It’s a whole set, not just a couple of songs. He wanted to try it. That was the reason I started doing it again, because my son Waylon started singing with us. That was really cool.”
With that, Krieger started playing those classic, beloved Doors tunes again. At 72 years old, though, what inspires him to still get up and perform songs, time after time, that he’s already played countless times?
“Well, when you get up there and see people that are so into the music, it just makes you want to keep going on,” he says. “Especially when there’s young people in the audience. A lot of places there’s mostly baby boomers, which is great. But it’s great to see younger people who didn’t really grow up with The Doors, who are so into it. It’s cool. We’re lucky to be able to do that — not all the ’60s bands are so lucky.”
He’s right, of course. The Doors have always managed to retain a youthful audience in a way that, for example, Herman’s Hermits haven’t. This is partly because so many bands through the decades have been so vocal with their adoration for The Doors, not least the ’90s grunge bands. There’s also a case to be made that, because the band’s focal point died at 27, he didn’t have a chance to get old in the eyes of his fans, unlike The Who, The Stones, McCartney, etc.
Whatever the reason, Krieger is happy to be able to perform in front of a wide range of ages. He's assembled a solid band featuring Ty Dennis (formerly of new wave band The Motels) on drums, Phil Chen (Jeff Beck) on bass, and either Ed Roth or Nathan Wilmarth on keys, depending on who’s available. Whoever is tinkling, it must be an intimidating prospect. Manzarek has left big shoes to fill.
“I would think so,” Krieger says. “They love it because they get to play ‘Riders on the Storm,’ and the amazing solo that Ray did. And the one on ‘Light My Fire.’ These guys would pay to play.”
While these shows are a full-on nostalgia fest, Krieger does keep his artistic fires burning by recording and performing jazz-rock. He has a record about to drop called Robby Krieger’s Jam Kitchen. He keeps the two projects separate, though.
“When we do The Doors, it’s pretty much The Doors,” he says. “When I do the other stuff, though, we do a couple of Doors songs. It’s tough because people really want to see me do The Doors. Doing my jazz, they’re always calling out for Doors songs. It’s a good problem to have, I guess.”
It’s pretty much left to Krieger to fly the Doors flag nowadays, besides the many tribute bands that are out there (Krieger thinks that Wild Child are the best). Densmore did get back on the stool at last year’s Manzarek tribute concert, which will soon be released as a DVD, but Krieger says the drummer has severe tinnitus and can’t play loud music for a prolonged time.
“I always ask John to come out and play,” Krieger says. “He’s got this hearing problem. It’s tough. But we do a few things here and there.”
On Saturday, Krieger plays at the Canyon in Santa Clarita, the last in a series of shows around the local area. The guitarist says he always mixes the set up, and he’s even had a horn section with him at a couple of recent gigs.
After that, he’ll be appearing at special events to help out the Starkey Hearing Foundation and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. He’s decades into his career, and using his profile to help people. But still, when he gets up onstage this weekend, plugs in and starts ripping into those old Doors tunes, watch the years fall away.
Robby Krieger plays with Seven40Seven and Midnight Escape Artist at 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 16, at the Canyon, Santa Clarita.