Dukes of September Rhythm Revue: Concert Review

Dukes of September Gibson Ampitheater - H 2012
Chris Godley

Dukes of September Gibson Ampitheater - H 2012

Donald Fagen is definitely the ringleader of this soul circus, and his affection for and knowledge of the vintage material shines through.

The supergroup comprised of Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald celebrates the music of the '60s and '70s on their second summer tour.

“I would love to tour the southland in a traveling minstrel show,” Donald Fagen once sang in Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic.” That number showed up in the encores Thursday night at the Gibson Amphitheatre, where Fagen was playing with fellow ‘70s superstars Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald under the group moniker of the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue. Most of the two-hour set list on this tour consists of these white fellows covering the black music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, so it’s anyone’s guess whether Fagen means to send a mental smirk our way as he sings that line.

But if this be minstrelsy, it’s a pretty classy and irresistible version of it. Fagen is definitely the ringleader of this soul circus, and his affection for and knowledge of the vintage material shines through, even if the choice of cover material borders on the overly obvious. He founded the New York Rock & Soul Revue in the early ‘90s, during Steely Dan’s very extended hiatus, to do R&B oldies—and later brought Scaggs and McDonald into the fold, eventually changing the name because his fellow frontmen weren’t fellow New Yorkers. The concept was naturally expanded to incorporate some of the trio’s own late ‘70s hits, too, since there’s only so much of a market for Harold Melvin covers on the amphitheater circuit.

It’s the kind of a setup where probably no fan leaves disappointed but no one leaves completely sated, either. True, McDonald does exactly the three massive Doobie Brothers hits you’d expect him to, so there’s no catalog loss there. But Scaggs’ presence seems a little skimpier, as he only turns in two numbers from his own repertoire, “Lowdown” and the less remembered “Miss Sun.” Since Steely Dan’s catalog is both deep and brilliant, Fagen is the one who leaves ‘em wanting more the most, even though Thursday’s set included a comparatively generous four Dan songs.

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The clear highlight of the Gibson show was a song that wasn’t part of the set when the tour opened in St. Louis last week: “Pretzel Logic.” It seemed as if maybe it’d been a toss-up as to whether it’d make it in this time, as Fagen looked to the band during the encores and seemed half-honest when he asked if they “want to play some blues.” It’s not just that it’s one of Steely Dan’s simpler and more crowd-pleasing vamps, but that Scaggs and McDonald traded verses with Fagen on it — vigorously. They pulled that three-man gambit on a couple of cover songs early in the night, too, but it’d be fun to see them trade off more on each other’s own material, too.

In some ways, theirs is the opposite of a typical soul revue, if there’s any such thing. The blunter and more hard-driving the tune, the less interesting it was in their hands. So when the three exchanged verses on “Sweet Soul Music,” which benefits from sheer muscle, it never took off. Likewise for a version of “Summer in the City” that Fagen just wasn’t really equipped to master. But the songs that utilized a lighter touch or fuller orchestration came off beautifully. The best of these, and a close contender for song of the night, was Fagen’s take on Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.” It was sweet, sinewy, classy, mysterious, big-band-suitable, and slow-unfolding. In other words, a lot like a Steely Dan song.

On a previous Dukes of September tour two summers ago, the outside choices of material tended toward the obscure, including more stuff by fellow white guys like the Band and Grateful Dead, as well as vintage black hits not known to most of the crowd. Maybe they learned their lessons about audience expectations that time, because there was plenty more familiar soul this time around. But sometimes they’d have it both ways, by playing an immediately recognizable song that Fagen would introduce as being based on a lesser known version. So when backup vocalists Carolyn Leonhart and Catherine Russell took the spotlight to sing “Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Piece of My Heart” (respectively), Fagen took time out to inform us that they were covering those tunes’ less famous, earlier recordings by Gladys Knight and Erma Franklin (respectively).

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A duet cover of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” by Scaggs and Leonhart sounded better in concept than execution, as the harmonies never quite got off the ground. But after marking time with an okay version of a Muddy Waters classic, Scaggs finally came into his own vocally with a lovely reading of Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO.”

And McDonald, who took a back seat for much of the show’s first half, dominated much of the later going to a surprising degree. His voice has developed a deeper, huskier edge, but he can still hit (most of) those high notes, if not so airily as he once did – a combination that almost makes it seem as if he’s harmonizing with himself. He was a natural for choices like “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” but for Steely Dan fans, of course, the most fun came in hearing him sing backup on some of the tunes he did on record in the ‘70s, along with some he hadn’t. And “backup” is a relative word when it comes to McDonald. On the Fagen-led encore of “Peg,” whenever the ex-Doobie chipped in with that famous “Peeeeeggggg,” he suddenly became the de facto lead vocalist.

Naturally, with Fagen borrowing most of the players from the occasionally touring Steely Dan Orchestra, you couldn’t find better musicianship at any price. The non-billed MVP of the night was Jon Herington, who – aside from a few bluesy Scaggs moments – handled nearly all the guitar solos, coming just close enough to the classic recorded leads while being allowed space enough by taskmaster Fagen to improvise delicious bits and pieces.

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Just as the show began with the three frontmen walking on while the band and singers vamped through James Brown’s “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul,” it ended with a walk-off reprise. And, as many highlights as the preceding two hours had provided, you couldn’t help but wish you could follow the players and their employers to an all-night spot where these nimble-fingered historians could kick out the jams on something more obscure than “That Lady” or “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Again)," unencumbered by the need to satisfy a paying middlebrow boomer audience. But that’s looking a gift revue in the mouth, right?

The tour, which was on its fifth gig at the Gibson, continues through late August. Stops including July 3 at the Santa Barbara Bowl and August 1-2 at New York City’s Beacon.

Dukes of September, June 28, Gibson Amphitheatre set list (with originating artists in parentheses):

1.    People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul (James Brown) – lead: female vocalists
2.    That Lady (Isley Brothers) – lead: all three frontmen
3.    Sweet Soul Music (Arthur Conley) – lead: all three frontmen
4.    I Keep Forgetting (Doobie Brothers) – lead: McDonald
5.    Trouble Man (Marvin Gaye) – lead: Fagen
6.    Kid Charlemagne (Steely Dan) – lead: Fagen
7.    That Same Thing (Muddy Waters) – lead: Scaggs
8.    Miss Sun (Scaggs) – lead: Scaggs and Catherine Russell
9.    Heard It Through the Grapevine (Gladys Knight) – lead: Carolyn Leonhart
10.    Love is Strange (Mickey & Sylvia) – lead: Scaggs and Carolyn Leonhart
11.    Summer in the City (Lovin’ Spoonful) – lead: Fagen
12.    If You Don’t Know Me By Now (Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes) – lead: McDonald
13.    What a Fool Believes (Doobie Brothers) – lead: McDonald
14.    Hey Nineteen (Steely Dan) – lead: Fagen
15.    Love TKO (Teddy Pendergrass) – lead: Scaggs
16.    Piece of My Heart (Erma Franklin) – lead: Catherine Russell
17.    Lowdown (Scaggs) – lead: Scaggs
18.    Takin’ It to the Streets (Doobie Brothers) – lead: McDonald and Catherine Russell
19.    Reelin’ in the Years (Steely Dan) – lead: Fagen

20.    Peg (Steely Dan) – lead: Fagen
21.    Pretzel Logic (Steely Dan) – lead: all three frontmen
22.    Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) (Sly & the Family Stone) – lead: female vocalists
23.    “Them Changes” (Buddy Miles) – lead: McDonald
24.    “People Get Up and Drive Your Funky Soul” (reprise) (James Brown) – lead: female vocalists

Twitter: @chriswillman