by Devon Wendell
What happens when three rock n’ roll icons (Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs) team up to show their love for the soul, rock, and blues classics that have shaped their individual styles? You get The Dukes Of September Rhythm & Blues Band conceived by Fagen as a new version of his Rock & Soul Review of the 90’s.
Powered by the rhythm section that usually tours with Fagen when he’s fronting Steely Dan (John Herrington: guitar, Freddie Washington: bass, Michael White: drums) along with Michael Leonhart: trumpet, Walt Weiskopf: tenor sax, Jay Collins: tenor and baritone sax, Jim Beard: keyboard, Carolyn Leonhart and Catherine Russell: backing and lead vocals, the trio performed a diverse set that included Motown, Atlantic, Stax, and Philly soul hits, classic rock anthems, and material from their own collective projects.
The band kicked off the show with Don Covey’s “Sookie, Sookie,” which featured Catherine Russell and Carolyn Leonhart on lead vocals. It was apparent from the first few bars that this band was about fun and devotion as each band member soloed in a loose but well rehearsed manner.
After the opening number, Fagen, Scaggs, and McDonald entered the stage. Fagen sat at his piano and jokingly explained to the crowd, “We were going to call ourselves the ‘Three Old Hippies Rhythm Review’,” and quickly led the band in a delightful version of The Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” with Scaggs trading twangy blues guitar leads with Herrington. Fagen’s vocal was eerily close to that of the late Jerry Garcia’s. His singing has become slightly more tired and huskier, but in the delightful manner of an aging bluesman. His percussive jazz/gospel tinged piano playing never sounded stronger.
Fagen, McDonald, and Scaggs all performed a few spirited numbers from their own records: Fagen’s “Green Flower Street” and “I.G.Y. (What A Wonderful World)” from his solo album Nightfly; McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting” and “What A Fool Believes”; and Scaggs’ “Lowdown” and “Miss Sun.” But it was the tributes to their vintage soul mentors that were the highlights of the evening.
Scaggs was especially powerful with a tight yet rollicking rendition of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” which had Fagen playing the melody line on the melodica, along with McDonald playing accordion, and a smooth and melancholy reading of Teddy Pendegrass’s “Love TKO.” Scaggs’ lazy yet sly vocals and tasty guitar style were a perfect match for these songs.
McDonald’s no-nonsense take on Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got News For You” was one of the most powerful performances of the evening. He sounded as youthful as he did 30 years ago, vocally and on piano, though it was Catherine Russell (who dueted with McDonald on this number) who stole the spotlight with her church born, bluesy vocals.
Both Russell and Leonhart were amazing, adding unique background vocal texturing and taking the lead on a wealth of the material such as Leonhart’s confident version of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and Russell doing Muddy Waters’ “I Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love.” Scaggs’ Chicago blues guitar licks added to the fire of the Waters classic.
The ultra-precise thumbing bass lines by Washington that rode atop White’s in-the-pocket drumming added even more power to each number. And the horn section, too, was flawless. Though each of the three men brought their own distinctive sound to each performance, that one of a kind slick sound brought by Fagen’s band gave the feeling of Steely Dan playing hooky from school. And it was apparent that the each band member was having as much fun as the enthusiastic audience as The Dukes continued with Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years,” which featured masterful duel guitar harmonies by Harrington and Scaggs.
As the show got closer to the end, the energy level both on stage and off increased. This sentimental journey continued with the fitting “Love Train” by The O’Jays. Scaggs lead the band through the verses, and all three men gleefully gave it their all on the timeless chorus.
But the most fascinating moments of the evening happened during the group’s long encore, which started with an amazingly original take on The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda.” The horn section’s bouncing hooks gave the impression of Count Basie covering The Beach Boys, swinging their way from Kansas City to Southern California. McDonald played some very impressive ukulele.
The most heartfelt performance was Fagen singing Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In The Air,” a song of revolution and change. His vocal had the same nasally tone as John “Speedy” Keen’s on the original. The feeling of nostalgia and joy was felt with every nuance on this flower-power era hit. The band ended with a no-frills rendition of The Band Of Gypsys’ “Them Changes,” in which Harrington played a fiercely original guitar solo without mimicking Hendrix’s style on the most well known recording of this rocking soul anthem.
The Dukes of September kept it simple at The Greek Theater. Three music legends paid tribute to the music closest to their own hearts and the audience’s with sincerity, devotion, and most of all, fun.