There’s a clip on YouTube of Daryl Hall & John Oates performing in Dublin in 2014. The song is one of the best known of the 26 Top 40 hit singles they’ve had over their 47 years together: “Maneater,” originally released in 1982. At first, the song sounds like it could be the version we’ve heard on the radio for decades — the soft pulse of drums and the ghostly sax are all in place. But when Daryl Hall, surely one of the greatest voices in rock ‘n’ roll, begins to sing, something’s different.
In fact, his entire performance is different. He teases out some of the familiar lines, abruptly clips off words in others, and eases himself into the chorus like a jazz singer, improvising around a well-known melody. Then Oates and the rest of the band get into the act, playing extended solos and throwing in a reggae section to boot.
And if you do a little further searching, you’ll find that there aren’t any two live versions of the same Hall & Oates song that are the same. It seems like, after 40 million albums sold, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, and a slew of artists from Cee Lo Green to Fitz & the Tantrums paying tribute to them, these two guys refuse to rest on their laurels.
“We know each other so well we can improvise within the familiar songs,” Hall says. “And I never sing something the same way twice, ever. That keeps it interesting.”
In fact, the band’s current tour finds them tinkering with not just their setlist but with the instruments they play onstage. Fans can expect to hear the classics, from “She’s Gone” to “Private Eyes” to “Out of Touch” and beyond, but they’ll hear some more obscure cuts as well, all of them played just a bit differently than they’re accustomed to.
“We have this interesting problem of having too many songs for one set,” Hall says. “There are some songs we certainly have to play, but we have to change it up sometimes and play the more unfamiliar ones just to change the mood a bit. The one thing about a setlist is it has a lot of moving parts. But this is one of my favorite sets we’ve played. I’m playing grand piano on a few songs, and just through doing that it changes things. I like how much more relaxed it feels. It’s sort of a mental break to do different things. Even if they’re small things, it changes the feeling and makes it more fun for me to play.”
Hall says that he doesn’t really view the band’s catalog in terms of hits or misses, and he didn’t have a lot of commercial expectations, even when the band was at their mid-’80s multi-platinum peak.
“Every song was a surprise to me no matter what it did,” he says. “It was a surprise if it was a success, it was a surprise if it didn’t do what everyone assumed it was going to. I don’t really think about it in those terms when I write them or after the fact. They all mean something to me, and whether they become big hits matters to me less than the song itself. That’s how I keep myself centered about all that stuff: Everything takes me by surprise.”
Though the duo was typically more commercially than critically successful during its prime years, over time, Hall and Oates’ mix of soulful vocal harmonies and an uncanny knack for catchy hooks has been praised by a stellar array of younger performers, many of whom have performed on Hall’s show Live From Daryl’s House, which started on the web in 2007 and moved to cable TV in 2012.
“We’d always been popular with different groups of people and different generations,” Hall says. “But when I started doing my TV show, I immediately saw a difference in how people perceived me personally, and John and myself as a whole,” Hall says. “That show is so real and so truthful and shows my personality and my band’s personality and what we’re really about, what our motivations are, what makes us tick as musicians and people. I think that was a missing element in people’s perceptions of myself and Hall & Oates. It changed overnight for us.”
Not that TV was that anxious to get involved in the show at first, probably due to the casual, no-frills feel that pervades Live From Daryl’s House: It’s just a couple of cameras, a stripped-down set, and some of the best and most famous musicians in the world jamming.
“I knew that what I had was lightning in a bottle,” he says. “But it wouldn’t have been allowed on a network. In fact, it literally wasn’t allowed. I tried. I went to TV networks in the early days and pitched it, and they said it wasn’t going to work for television and I walked away. I did it on the internet for a few more years, and now suddenly it’s on television. And it’s basically the same show — it just happens to be on TV.”
As for the core relationship that’s kept Hall and Oates ticking for almost 50 years, it’s an interesting one. They haven’t made a new studio album of original songs since 2003, and Hall doesn’t see that changing; both men are ensconced in their own solo careers.
“We’ve always collaborated live,” Hall says. “That’s our true collaboration. We never really collaborated a lot as far as songwriting goes, though we did write some songs together. I’ve known him since we were teenagers, and I think when you’re young, it’s you and your buddy against the world. But as you get older, you learn more and more about yourself, and you have a different agenda, both creatively and personally. We went our separate ways to do our own thing, but we still love to do the tours.”