I was born just a couple of years too late to fully appreciate Boz Scaggs, The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan in all their smooth Seventies glory. However, this is not to say they weren’t building blocks upon which I formed my musical tastes. The Doobies’ Michael McDonald in particular was a fixture on the radio during my childhood: The Doobies’ classics were fixtures on easy listening radio, McD racked up a handful of pop and soul hits in the ’80s, and his distinctive voice provided background vocals on just about every third song to ever be released. I discovered Steely Dan in the early-mid Nineties, and although I was somewhat familiar with Boz Scaggs (the “Lowdown” 45 was in heavy rotation at Casa De Blerd back in the day,) I didn’t fully appreciate his music until maybe a decade ago.
All of that to say-I was really fuckin’ excited when I found out that McDonald, Scaggs and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen were touring as the Dukes of September. They’d actually come this way a couple of years ago, and I missed them. I wasn’t going to let this happen twice.
So approximately 32 years after I got my first glance of Michael McDonald (on the 1980 Grammy Awards, during which my grandmother wondered why he was trying to eat the microphone,) I got to sit in the same room (theater?) with him as he, Fagen and Scaggs jauntily ran through two hours of hits–both their own and the hits of others. It was a fantastic show, even if the musicians lacked in spontaneity and improvisation. But what would you expect from a show featuring these guys, who were the definition of pop smoothness, anyway?
The three men performed together for the entire show. McDonald and Fagen played keyboards (Mike even busted out an accordion for one song,) while Scaggs played guitar. The three alternated vocals from song to song, round-robin style. Fagen acted as master of ceremonies, providing almost all of the between-song banter and cracking a couple of wry jokes with the audience. Watching the three was an exercise in understanding NYC snark (Fagen) vs. L.A. cool (McD and Scaggs.) They were joined by a 7-piece band (a 3-member horn section, bass, guitar and drums) that consisted of several studio pros (including Freddie Washington on bass) and 2 background singers, who did some of the heavy lifting on songs like “Piece of My Heart” and duetted on songs like Scaggs’ “Miss Sun” and a gospel-inflected version of the Doobies’ “Takin’ It To The Streets” that indicated Michael McDonald could find a home in any Baptist or Pentecostal church should he get tired of the whole pop music thing.
The selection of covers was solid. Boz skillfully smoothed out Teddy Pendergrass’s “Love TKO,” while McDonald worked out “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” ad-libbing and riffing soulfully. Fagen’s detached cool was in full effect on his version of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man.” However, it wasn’t the covers that most of the crowd (which seemed to be heavily skewed towards aging boomers, which a few boisterous twenty- and thirtysomethings scattered) came for. The loudest receptions were given to the classics you know and love from these guys. Scaggs, in particular, put the crowd in his pocket with note-perfect renditions of “Lowdown” and “Lido (OH-OH-OH-OHHHHHHHHH) Shuffle.” Fagen, who appears to have lost the most vocally due to age (he’s 64, Boz is 68 and McD is 60) nevertheless thrilled with “Kid Charlemagne” and “Hey Nineteen,” and although McD got off to a slightly rough start on the high notes on “I Keep Forgettin’,” a version of “What A Fool Believes” had everyone up and dancing.
I’m actually pretty pleased that I got to see these three men performing together–the fact that they alternated songs kept things fresh. The two hours blew by, and I can’t say that it would’ve been the case had the show been just one of the three artists. While an element of my enjoyment of the show was certainly based on nostalgia, I’ve also got to give a thumbs up to the musicianship-meticulous as it was. I also have to give props to Michael McDonald as a singer. Not that I wasn’t already aware of the fact that he has one of the most distinctive voices in pop music history, but the guy can still belt it. A Daryl Hall/Michael McDonald double bill would be the ultimate blue-eyed soulgasm for me. Not that I’m hinting or anything.
At any rate, these three men put on a hell of a show. This is a ’70s-pop dream lineup that’s worth seeing even in the 21st century. The only thing that could’ve possibly made it better was if they’d recruited Toto to be the backing band.