While it lacked the precision of a Steely Dan concert, the laconic sway of a Boz Scaggs concert or the drive of a Doobies Bros. concert, The Dukes of September was a steady entertainment that probably heralds the next big thing in Retirement Rock, but more on that in minute.
First, to the matter at hand: how do three unwilling rock stars, famous for flying under the radar while compiling complex catalogues and decades of remarkable music, create one headlining event that showcases not just their hits, but their roots? The answer is haltingly. This because their reluctance to just play their own hits potentially means a bored audience and crummy word-of-mouth about self-indulgent musicians. But balanced against the artists’ boredom with playing their own hits for the ten thousandth time, the compromise is to mix in a lot of relatively deep, obscure blues and rhythmic oldies. Their stated case was to play the songs that inspired them as impressionable young men. So we got Ray Charles’, “Tell the Truth” and David Ruffin’s “My World Ended” along with some better-known stuff like the OJays’ “Soul Train.”
It’s a compromise, usually a dread term in music, but it works, at least as far as it goes. Their greatest stated fear, voiced in pre-tour interviews by Michael McDonald, was that they would have a great time, but the audience might get lost in the weeds. I think that result has been—barely—averted.
Anyone in attendance would have been happy to let Donald and company lay down the jams till the girls said when, but with only two hours in which to cram forty years of music, something had to give. Boz treated us to the “Lowdown” done to elegant perfection. Mike McDonald got the most individual microphone time and acquitted himself of the obligation to perform “What a Fool Believes,” “Takin’ it to the Streets” and “I Keep Forgettin’.” The solo disappointment might have been that Fagen only did “Green Flower Street,” a fairly obscure mid-late Steely Dan number, and the huge crowd pleaser “Reelin’ in the Years.”
I know, it wasn’t a Steely Dan concert (although the nine-piece band has been the touring Dan band for most of the decade, and Donald is the putative leader of this ensemble), but there was room for more Steely Dan in the show. It was very cool that the back up singers, jazz aficionado fave Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Catherine Russell were both given solos. It may be Donald’s thing, but it is very democratic. So much so that there’s a Band/Levon Helm tribute where each of the principals sings a Helm song. It was fun, but for the audience’s sake, not the artist’s (that balance-of-interests thing again), the time would have been better spent on their own material. But just when things were getting too obscure, “Help Me Rhonda,” the tireless Beach Boys classic, shows up to lighten the load.
All told, who wouldn’t love spending an evening with these pros, no matter what they played?
The most interesting aspect of the event, however, was the fact that it was there at all. The smart money says that after endless rounds of diminishing returns with “farewell tours,” Retirement Rock has figured out a winning new angle. The aging boomers are recombining in new touring alliances that hint at the old, but are not obligated to play the catalogue ad nauseum. This summer, economically the worst in the modern touring industry’s history, has seen high ticket/service prices run headlong into under-established acts. The result has been cancellations and lame excuses for weak sales. While acts and promoters are re-thinking how many seats mid-size youthful acts and American Idol can sell, the Boomers are buying tickets. James Taylor is selling out every venue in his nostalgic tour with Carole King. Elton John and Billy Joel have been sharing coliseum stages for a few years now. Tom Petty has brought Crosby, Stills and Nash along to good effect. Eric Clapton has re-engaged with Steve Winwood for some new-old Blind Faith, as well as with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker for some fresh Cream. Robert Plant and Alison Krause made a hit record and toured together. And last summer Elvis Costello, perpetually bored and stretching his chops, was on the road with Emmy Lou Harris.
It’s actually exciting out there again, so I will take a little obscurity and forgive Fagen and McDonald for not reprising their Steely Dan hit “Peg,” so long as it amuses them enough to do it again tonight.