When Michael McDonald first sang with Steely Dan in 1975, he never imagined that decades later he would share the stage with Dan's co-founder Donald Fagen on a co-billing in the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue.
"Every night at some point in the evening when I'm playing I think how remarkable it is that 30 years later I'm still taking the stage with Donald," marvels McDonald. "I wouldn't have bet on it in a million years. That's a big part of the thrill. Boz and I toured together in Japan in the late '70s and '80s, so we all kind of have a history together and that makes it mean more."
Stopping in Hawaii before heading to Japan, the Dukes of September teams three masters of their craft - Fagen, McDonald and Boz Scaggs - for a superb evening that visits their individual, memorable hits along with a bunch of classic soul and R&B nuggets, all backed by a stellar nine-piece ensemble comprised of many members of the Steely Dan touring band.
Donald Fagen (from left), Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs are the powerhouse trio behind the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue. Backed by a nine-piece ensemble comprised of many members of the Steely Dan touring band, the group has been getting rave reviews.
Photo courtesy Maui Arts & Cultural Center
"The musicianship was off the charts," raved a Dallas News review. "With help from McDonald on keyboards, Fagen on piano and Scaggs on guitar, that ensemble of players reveled in a mature, uncluttered sound encompassing R&B, pop, jazz and blues."
"You couldn't find better musicianship at any price," praised the Hollywood Reporter.
"The enjoyment of the audience, which cheered and leapt to its feet after almost every number, was beyond question," noted The New Yorker. "And no wonder. It all adds up to exhilaration."
The three stars first performed together back in the early 1990s, when Steely Dan was on an extended sabbatical. With his wife Libby Titus, Fagen gathered some musician friends to form the New York Rock and Roll Soul Revue.
"Donald and Libby came up with this idea of putting together a review of different kinds of players and different musicians from different genres," McDonald explains. "We started out playing just around New York City and then it fanned out into a national tour and we recorded an album. It didn't happen again until about two years ago with the Dukes of September.
"It was the kind of thing that might be more enjoyable for the audience because with the Rock and Soul Revue there was a lot of coming and going of artists and that gets a little tedious after a while for the audience to sit through. So we came up with the idea of possibly just Boz and I and Donald being in the band more or less playing on all of the material. That seemed to be the most fun for us and it worked best for the audience because it really keeps the show rolling. Once we take the stage we don't have to take a lot of pauses for anything."
So who came up with the name?
"It was more or less a collective effort, but I think Donald in the end came up with the name," he says. "We were just exhausted going through a list, so we thought it sounded good. But none of us know what it means."
As all three members of this super group have such vast bodies of work to draw from, one wonders how they came up with a set list?
"In the first three shows we probably changed the show the most significantly," he reports. "We tried a couple of the older songs and they didn't pan out very well. We did a version of 'Midnight Hour' which sounded great with the band, but ultimately it didn't seem like the song for that slot. And we traded out a couple of other songs."
The memorable covers range from Gladys Knight and the Pips' version of "Heard it Through the Grapevine" to Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' "If You Don't Know Me By Now."
"We've been doing 'Who's That Lady' by the Isley Brothers and that gets a big reaction every night," McDonald continues. "And we do one of the more obscure songs by Ray Charles, 'Tell the Truth,' which gets a good reaction. It's a classic R&B groove, but you haven't heard it much in the last 20 or 30 years. It really comes off great live."
Besides all sharing a love for classic soul and R&B, the trio has a common bond of crafting songs during a uniquely fertile time.
"We all came up in the '70s which is a unique era because pop radio embraced what we did," McDonald explains. "I toured with Steely Dan about four years ago, opening for them. And I remember thinking it's so amazing that they were the darlings of pop radio for two decades from the '70s through the '80s. Their songs are so weird and so unusual in so many aspects, arrangement-wise and harmonically very sophisticated compared to a lot of stuff you associate with pop radio. And for some reason '70s acts like James Taylor, Steely Dan, Bonnie Raitt and Boz Scaggs were fully embraced by Top-40 radio and the audience loved this music. Then it got kind of restrictive in the '80s and there was a kind of rebellion against anything the least bit sophisticated. In the '70s, there was such a diverse playlist with bands like Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles and Carol King. Everybody was so different from everybody else and yet we all had a common thread of being there at that time, playing a lot of the same venues and touring together."
One of the most distinctive and popular vocalists to emerge from California's rock scene of the late 1970s, McDonald first came to national attention as a backing vocalist with Steel Dan. Beginning with 1975's "Katy Lied," he sang on "The Royal Scam," "Aja," and "Gaucho." His appealing blend of soul and soft rock later earned him five Grammy Awards and a string of hit songs from "Takin' It to the Streets" and "What a Fool Believes" with the Doobie Brothers, to "I Keep Forgettin' " and "On My Own" with Patti LaBelle. In recent years he's found great success mining the Motown catalogue.
One of the greatest R&B singers of our time, Boz Scaggs is known for such smooth, soulful hits such as "Lido Shuffle," "Lowdown," "Georgia," "Harbor Lights," and "Jo Jo."
And Donald Fagen with Steely Dan partner Walter Becker, is responsible for some of the most enduring hits of the late 20th century from "Reelin' in the Years" and "Pretzel Logic" to "Black Friday" and "Peg."
"I just love singing all the background parts that I sang on some of their records like 'Hey Nineteen'," says McDonald about the Dukes' repertoire. "We've been doing 'Pretzel Logic' and Boz sings a verse and I sing a verse and Donald sings his verse, and we do 'Kid Charlemagne'."
So what does he enjoy most about touring with the Dukes?
"One of the things I like the most is playing on Boz and Donald's songs," he responds. "I've always enjoyed their music and I really enjoy being a part of it. And of course playing the old stuff is one of things I love the most. I have always had a great fondness for sitting in bars and playing old songs. It's one of my favorite things in the world to do, so to do it with a band of this caliber is a lot of fun. And playing my own stuff with a different group is always fun."
Having generally received a rapturous response from audiences many are wondering if the trio has thoughts about a resulting album.
"We haven't really broached that subject yet, it's almost like the kind of thing we don't want to talk about," he says. "I think we all would like to do it, but for some reason we haven't. We're just letting it be what it is, which is a traveling live show. I personally would love to do a record with the guys, but how we would approach that I'm not sure. I think we're all kind of wondering whether there is a way we could approach it as a band. We found with the last of 'Rock and Soul Revue' album that radio was really reluctant to play it because they just don't like live albums."
As for individual recording projects, Fagen just released his fourth solo album, "Sunken Condos," a rich trove of funky, smooth grooves. A UK Uncut music mag review concluded, "Donald's back in his self-referencing sweet spot and all's right with the world."
"Boz is doing a blues album in Memphis right now with Steve Jordan," McDonald reports. "It's getting a lot of buzz from the people who are working on it. I hear it's really going well."
And McDonald has two of his own projects in the works - one with his son Dylan and another with guitarist Robben Ford.
"We've got about four songs for an EP which we'll probably put out on the Internet," he says about the Ford sessions. "It's pretty eclectic. One is a kind of folk song with a salsa groove and the others are in a blues-rock vein."
The father and son collaboration is almost complete. "I approached it as a kind of lark," he explains. "We were picking songs for each other that we thought the other one wouldn't dare try. The first track he wanted to me to try was a Radiohead song. I like the band a lot, so I said I will give it a shot. It's something you would not normally think of me doing. But I've always enjoyed trying my hand at something unusual."
* The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue performs at 7 p.m. on Oct. 25 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's A&B Amphitheater. Gates open at 5.30 p.m. Tickets are $55, $85, and $95, with a limited number of premium seats at $149 (plus applicable fees). Tickets are available through the MACC Box Office at (808) 242-SHOW, or online at MauiArts.org.