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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Hall and Oates are cool again, and they talked to us

We will, in a minute, get to how Daryl Hall and John Oates suddenly got so cool.

But first, Oates has to tell you about the time he almost wrestled Skrillex on stage.

It happened at the 2016 Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival in South Florida. Oates, who had headlined with Hall the night before, was leading an all-star jam session featuring Miguel, Mumford and Sons, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, Kamasi Washington and others.

After wrapping his own set on another stage, the DJ raced over to join in. He grabbed a spare guitar, shredded for a bit, then smashed it on the stage. Then he made a beeline toward Oates.

"Now, I had my very, very extra-special 1958 Strat that I’ve been playing since the early ’70s, that’s priceless, pretty much, sitting on a stand behind me," Oates said. "I turned around, and he had my really rare, expensive guitar in his hands. And I thought, Oh, s---. Because if he breaks it, it’s over. And it looked like that’s what he was going to do.

"As he ran behind me, I literally grabbed him by the arm, and I just grabbed the guitar and ripped it out of his hands. And then he just took off. So that was really weird. "

What’s weird is that Oates was in this position in the first place.

In their prime, Hall and Oates were a pop-music punch line, enormous stars on radio and MTV, yet as critically uncool as they come. Maneater, Private Eyes, Kiss On My List and Out of Touch all hit No. 1, but were no one’s idea of cutting edge.

But a funny thing has happened this millennium: Everyone realized cheesy pop music could actually, secretly, be great. Hall and Oates’ songs ended up everywhere — in ads, in films, on TV and, yes, being played alongside indie rock and EDM artists at major music festivals. They made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 — alongside Nirvana and Peter Gabriel — and have gone from headlining theaters to venues like Tampa’s Amalie Arena, which they’ll play alongside Train on June 22.

"The crowd gets younger and younger and younger, and I love it," Hall said. "We’ve managed to communicate and click with, I’d say, three younger generations than the one that I started with. So that’s very, very gratifying."

• • •

Hall is 71. Oates is 70. It has been 51 years since they met in Philadelphia, 46 since their debut album Whole Oats.

Even then, Oates said, they were thinking about playing together decades later.

"When we were in our 20s, we were talking about this," he said. "We made decisions on what would allow us to keep doing what we love, and what we were born to do, both individually and collectively, for a long, long time. Now, I didn’t think 70s, 80s, actual dates and ages. But I knew that I was going to be a musician, one way or another."

Hall and Oates weren’t flashes in the pan — they built themselves up on a bed of blue-eyed soul in the ’70s before ascending to pop stardom in the ’80s. But it must not have seemed that way to critics. Articles back then focused on their lack of respect, their mercenary industry savvy, even the persistent yet totally fabricated theory that — gasp! — they were secretly lovers.

"Rock journalism in that generation was the biggest bunch of crap," Hall said. "I’m embarrassed to be a f------ baby boomer."

So what changed?

Live From Daryl’s House had a lot to do with it. Launched in 2007, the web-turned-TV series featured Hall hosting artists at his home and club for dinner and a jam session, often featuring Hall and Oates deep cuts. It became something of a phenomenon.

"Suddenly, a generation of people that talk about music appeared, and the old guard went away," Hall said. "These new people had a different perception of me, and talked about me accordingly. I think people really got to see what kind of musician I really am."

For his part, even though he knows perception of the band has evolved, Oates doesn’t think they’ve changed all that much.

"We play our hits because people want to hear our hits," he said. "We throw in a couple of album tracks, deeper cuts here and there. We change some arrangements up. But from a musical standpoint, it’s not that much different from what we’ve always done."

While both are quick to remind you they’re individual artists — always billed as "Daryl Hall and John Oates," never just "Hall and Oates" — they know they wouldn’t be where they are without each other. Collaboration was central to their success, from Hall embellishing a song idea of Oates’, to Oates focusing on the nuts and bolts of the band so Hall can focus on singing.

"It’s empathy," Hall said of the art of collaboration. "It involves knowing how to make another person be his or her best."

Take Hall’s voice, an all-time silky-smooth croon that has changed with age, as voices do.

"When I listen to my old stuff, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I had a thinner, higher voice," he said. "Not really the voice I ultimately wanted, if you want the truth. My voice sort of evolved and matured into a place that’s more consistent with the kind of emotional output that I’m trying to exhibit. I’m a soul singer. And you’ve got to have a little depth in your voice to pull that off."

Oates said tours are now built in part around giving Hall’s voice the most rest possible — more days off between shows, playing more piano than guitar, "figuring out places during the show where he can rest a little bit."

They’re trying to do everything they can to make their revitalized moment last, because neither wants it to end anytime soon.

"I just can’t believe that it’s actually happening," Oates said. "The fact that these songs have stood the test of time and now are resonating with an entirely new generation is just a miracle. ... It’s a vindication, in a way, that what we were doing over the years was good and of high quality. We’re real proud of this music together."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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