While Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band is traversing America with his stable of olden goldie hitmakers, Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen and his soulful rock comrades-in-arms Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs are giving middle-aged and empty-nesters another good reason to get out of the house and see a rock concert this summer. The Dukes of September, as this super troupe calls themselves, are really a continuation of the Rock & Soul Revue live performance project Fagen headed up in the early ’90’s to play treasured soul and rock classics of their youth and indulge in playing a few of their own classic hits as well. McDonald and Scaggs were both participants in that concert series, but when Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker joined in the fun during a show in 1993, that led to a full-on Steely Dan reunion soon afterwards, and the Rock ‘N’ Soul Revue was put into hiatus. A couple of years ago, Fagen used a break from Steely Dan activities to re-form the collective, but with the idea of making it a co-headlined act among him, McDonald and Scaggs and call it The Dukes of September. But the premise and mission of the Dukes remains the same. With The Dan not touring in 2012, Fagen took his Dukes on the road again and yours truly caught their stop in the Dallas area.
The Verizon Theater of Grand Prairie, Texas turned into a baby boomer rave-up Saturday night as a nearly packed house rocked and danced to soul gems of the ’60s and adult contemporary classics of the 70s and early 80s, in a virtually flawless performance by these Dukes. Backed by an eight-piece band, mostly holdovers from Steely Dan’s touring band, the three tore through a set of about two dozen soul ballads and funky, old-style groovers that capitalized on the talents of everyone and kept the crowd engaged and fired up nearly the entire time.
Fagen acted as the emcee of the show, jokingly referring to McDonald as “white lightning” and noting a couple of times that Scaggs grew up nearby in the then farming community of Plano, TX. Dapperly dressed in a black shirt, black pants, black jacket and black Wayfarers, Fagen kept the same cool demeanor that he displays on his Steely Dan shows. With his piano positioned with the side facing the audience at front center stage, his eccentric way of playing it with exaggerated downwards motions and arms falling off to his sides was in full view. Any ideas that this was covering up a lack of technique were forcefully swept away when he performed a sophisticated solo piano interlude that abruptly segued into “Hey Nineteen.” Steely Dan songs were well represented that night (there were no solo Fagen tunes in case you were wondering). I suspected that “Reelin’ In the Years” would be among them, and though I like the horn-dominated version SD sometimes play live, the preferred guitar-dominated version is what we got. “Kid Charlemagne” nearly brought down the house, too, and the crowd singing along to it was clearly audible, it’s a song much better appreciated now than it was when it was scraping the bottom of the charts in 1976.
As the most distinctive voice and also the soul wailer of the group, Michael McDonald first got the crowd going early on with his solo hit “I Keep Forgettin'” along with Doobie Brothers mainstays “Takin’ It To The Streets” and — you know it — “What A Fool Believes.” But his signature moment came when undertaking Harold Melvin “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” a song that’s practically tailor made for his incomparable howling and pleading. Just as he did for the old Rock and Soul Revue, McDonald sang the climatic bridge on Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic,” which Fagen noted afterward, he also sang while touring in SD’s band back in 1973.
It’s hard to choose an MVP player when everyone is so talented and the program was design to present each of the stars even-handedly, but I’d have to give it up for Scaggs. In his smooth, unassuming way he can deliver a song to perfection and still bring the crowd to its feet. Singing his old hits like “Miss Sun” and especially “Lowdown,” he’s lost nothing in his voice and remains a top-rate blue-eyed soul crooner. What’s more, he is severely underrated as a guitarist, and he showed just how much when he delivered stinging, wailing notes while covering Muddy Waters’ “That Same Thing,” masterfully wah-wah’ing his way through his “Miss Sun” solo and laying down some raunchy sounding funk notes during Sly Stone’s “Thank You.”
The backing band was full of “A” players. Jon Herington was the main guitarist, Jim Bear added a third keyboard to go with Fagen and McDonald’s, perennial studio bass favorite Freddie Washington, Nashville drummer Shannon Forest formed the basis. Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Walt Weiskopf (sax, flutes) and Jay Collins (sax, flute) made up the horn section, and Carolyn Leonhart and Catherine Russell were the backup singers. Russell got to step out into the load vocal role several times, most notably belting out convincingly “Piece of My Heart,” and sharing the chores on hit tunes by McDonald and Scaggs. Carolyn Leonhart got her turn singing “Heard It Through The Grapevine” the way Gladys Knight did it before Marvin Gaye turned it into a Motown classic. Michael Leonhart quickly became a crowd favorite after he produced a sassy, agitated trumpet solo for “Hey Nineteen.” Herington is a do-it-all guitarist, someone who can bring the soul (“Summer In The City”) and rock (“Reelin’ In The Years”) by equally strong measures. His extensive experience playing for Steely Dan makes him an ideal choice when those songs came up, and his approach is to heavily suggest the original solos without mimicking them.
With the possible exception of “I Keep Forgettin’,” when it seemed McDonald’s mic cut out on him a little bit, the lighting and song engineering never became a distraction, which means those crews did their job. It was very easy to see and hear all eleven performers and experience how tight this band was.
The people who came of age when Boz Scaggs, the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan regularly charted songs don’t go steppin’ out as much at night, but when the Dukes of September come into town, it’s worthwhile for them to go catch this show and find their fountain of youth for one evening. There are no fancy light shows, outlandish costumes or funky strutting around the stage, just consummate professional musicians perfectly delivering a stage soundtrack alternative to The Big Chill. My dad, who I took along with me for a show I’ll truly never forget because I shared it with him, called it the best show he’s ever been to. I was so glad he was thrilled by it, but looking around the arena, I saw that everyone else was, too.
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Verizon Theater, Grand Prairie, Texas, July, 14, 2012:
Who’s That Lady (The Isley Brothers)
Sweet Soul Music (Arthur Conley)
I Keep Forgetting (McDonald)
Trouble Man (Marvin Gaye)
Kid Charlemagne (Steely Dan)
That Same Thing (Muddy Waters)
Miss Sun (Scaggs)
Heard It Through The Grapevine (Gladys Knight version)
You Never Can Tell (Chuck Berry)
Summer in the City (The Lovin’ Spoonful)
If You Don’t Know Me By Now (Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes)
What A Fool Believes (Doobie Brothers)
Hey Nineteen (Steely Dan)
Love TKO (Teddy Pendergrass)
Piece Of My Heart (Erma Franklin version)
Tell The Truth (Ray Charles)
Takin’ It To The Streets (Doobie Brothers)
Reelin’ In The Years (Steely Dan)
Peg (Steely Dan)
Pretzel Logic (Steely Dan)
Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) (Sly And The Family Stone)
Them Changes (Buddy Miles)