The Dukes Of September's second of two Canadian whistlestops blew through the Big Smoke last night without too many airs, nor fanfare, about it. Toronto is a musical town, increasingly asserting itself as one of the major cosmopolitan cultural centres of North America. You can't see every artist touring North America every summer in Toronto but you'd be hard pressed to find a more affordable and diverse, minor and major league musical offerings anywhere.
The Molson Canadian Ampitheatre sits on the site of what was once a slightly historic shed of it's own the Ontario Place Forum which gave way many years ago to the classic arena (covered floor, open lawn). Up until this summer Ontario Place was an amusement park dotted with Buckey balls of a dated optimistic style roughly coinciding with when the headliners were in vogue. The Buckey balls remain but the water slides sit dormant, Lake Ontario perched just beyond them. So there's something sort of ghost townish about the place having been quickly mothballed while the province debates turning it into a casino amongst other things. The complex has most recently been used as a venue for a massive electronic music event, what would have once been called a rave and subjugated to industrial warehouses.
Times have changed.
Nostalgia is close to mind given the plot and tenure of the assembled musicians. At 36 this writer will admit to having skewed heavily on the young side of this boomerish mass. A few years ago someone from my thick-rimmed pinhead generation decided that - McDonald, Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, Loggins and Messina- the whole mock 'genre' is best deemed as Yacht Rock. It was the sort of appraisal that leaned heavily on irony but the backhanded compliment wasn't without an uptick in interest amongst a younger generation for the dulcid sounds of the era. In an era when pop-cultural arcs and lifespans are ever diminishing, with genres and sub-genres cascading against one another like ricocheting squash balls, perhaps what is needed is a matriculation, an education, a back to basics in one genre: Rhythm, more properly Rythm and Blues.
The maestro and chief musicologist of this affair was always going to be Donald Fagen. His pedigree as one half of the musical institution Steely Dan made him the perfect man for the bill. Steely Dan- who perhaps created the idea of a true 'session musician' or 'double session' as those that could swim in their waters could in theory demand that sort of coin- have graced the cosmic jukebox with so many hits, so many true moments of musical grandeur it seems silly to explain their legacy here. Of the three, Fagen, McDonald, Scaggs, only Fagen is a songwriter and a bandleader proper- it seems plain that the role would fall to him.
So what the assembled throng was treated to then was a sort of Rhythm and Soul Revue with the three Dukes contributing chestnuts from their repertoire and a handful of cuts from the common canon that suited all three styles. By virtue of Fagen's touring fairly heavily of late with Steely Dan the backing band was accordingly various alumnus of his band, the 9-piece ensemble are:
Jon Herington (guitar)
Freddie Washington (bass)
Shannon Forrest (drums)
Jim Beard (organ, piano)
Jay Collins (horns)
Michael Leonhart ( sax, flutes)
Walt Weiskopf (sax, flutes)
Carolyn Escoffery (vocals)
Catherine Russell (vocals)
The three principals had played in an earlier version of the group, the New York Rock and Soul Revue (which also included Phoebe Snow, Eddie and David Brigati, Mindy Jostyn, Cornelius Bumpus, Charles Brown and the other 'Dan' Walter Becker). That short lived group surely didn't build up much chemistry but here the setlist was hatched out in advance by the Dukes then Fagen worked up arrangements for his band to play. Scaggs has said of the experience of playing with the ensemble "what we gained from it was a sense of confidence that we can kind of go where we want to go with these guys — it’s like a Ferrari”. Likewise McDonald has said “I think if we learned anything, it’s really only that maybe this time we can push the envelope a little bit more with some of the material.” Scaggs acknowledges (even with a stock setlist and arrangements in tow) “It’s kind of new waters for me.”
“I’m not a particularly collaborative personality or player or musician. So it comes, of course, to me as a great honour to be included in this trio and with this band. And it also gives me a chance to work with, on a high level, cats who are... who I admire immensely. But when we can find this common ground and when it clicks, it’s satisfying in a way that nothing else is.”
The concert itself unravelled something like a casino set out of doors with the best intentions of being a barn burner. The backing Dukes played Drive Your Funky Soul by James Brown as their intro music bringing the trio to the stage and Boz taking a silky lead on the Isley Brothers Who's That Lady? The mutt obvious question 'Do you like good music?' punctuated Arthur Conley's Sweet Soul Music with McDonald now at the helm.
The audience's collective gaze shifted stage left where Michael McDonald's shock of white hair huddled above his cherry brown organ cabinet. His rendition of his own song I Keep Forgettin', likely a lodestone for many in the audience, was one of the first goosebumps moments of the night. Then Fagen took the helm and led the band through it's paces on a big vamp of Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man. Seven songs in he dropped the first of the Steely Dan: Kid Charlemagne. Lyrically it's an opus to a San Fran type figure (Owsley) who created LSD by candlelight ('just by chance you crossed a diamond with a pearl, you turned it on the world, that's when it turned your world around'), a perfect choice as McDonald sings the definitive backing vocal lines on the original. I don't know that too many 'Day Glo freaks who used to paint their face' were in attendance, in any case they'd 'joined the human race' and the rendition was well worth the price of entry.
Having whipped up an early show peak a shift to stage right for Boz to run the band through a big version of Muddy's Same Thing. I can't say in all fairness that all of these collaborative moments, despite the ensemble touring for a bit this summer really shone. Fair when Boz did (part) of what Boz does, play the blues, the group seemed to rally behind. But some of the arrangements were a bit shmaltzy and song selections middling at times as everyone tried to find their bearings. Part of the challenge here is that while the members of the current Steely Dan may be used to playing Kid Charlemagne it's obviously a jazz rock opus of sorts and it was during in particular the Dan material that it seemed Scaggs guitar was way down in the mix and he was faintly straining rhythm chord progressions not seeming quite to know where to fit in.
Now when it came to his own material the opposite not surprisingly was true. When he brought the disco breeze (and sleaze) with Miss Sun it definitely helped having 'Ready' Freddie Washington backing him on bass. The whole ensemble just popped into place and the audience was right out of their seats.
Taking things back a bit Fagen did a bit of musical storytelling explaining that they'd be playing Heard It Through The Grapevine but not the first version everyone's familiar with (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles) but rather the (third version) made famous by Gladys Knight and the Pips. This number really gave Carolyn Escoffery a chance to shine and centre stage she worked it for all it was worth. They took Chuck Berry's Never Can Tell through it's paces. Things picked up a bit visually and musically with McDonald donning an accordion and Catherine a steelcut washboard for a slightly zydeco take on Buck Owens Love's Gonna Live Here.
McDonald broke hearts and took names with If You Don't Know Me By Now (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes). Then the second Steely bomb dropped with Hey 19 which seemed fitting on so many levels: 'Hey 19, 67'. Scaggs then found another side of his range with a so-silk-it's-suede rendition of Teddy Pendergrass Philly Soul anthem Love TKO.
Keeping pace as master of ceremonies Fagen brought it back to his spot centre stage soliciting a groan worthy 'Do you know the song Another Piece Of My Heart?' (elicits churlish, overaged schoolgirl type responses from audience). 'Well we're going to play the original version by Aretha Franklyn's very talented sister Erma'. Backup vocalist Catherine Russell got her centre stage moment and did a note perfect rendition that the audience ate up, her interplay with Boz was exquisite. Perhaps this portion of the show and the version of Ray Charles To Tell The Truth which followed was not 'hit heavy' enough for one member of the audience who apparently expressed his loud disapproval and left. 'Fuck you! You've got no taste, I'm glad you left', Fagen recalled sharply later.
This may be a generational thing because outside of the era Fagen and McDonald seem like slightly brighter lights on the marquee. But every time Boz Scaggs stepped to the mic or layed into a succulent guitar riff he proved the exact opposite. Maybe it was because Steely Dan played the previous summer and fans have had more chances to see them live but it seemed decidedly that all of the most raucous standing ovations were for one man only: Boz Scaggs. It seems safe to say that quite a lot of the crowd have a copy of the Silk Degrees LP and when he cut into Lowdown, taking the perfectly suited band through the disco funk paces, the whole ensemble truly shone. Scaggs humble and gracious way about himself, his throaty midwestern voice, his phrasing, the style of the originals all seemed to suit this group of musicians to a tee and he seemed genuinely chuffed at the outpouring of love from both audience and band alike.
McDonald took it to church for an ambling organ solo that floated past passages of Georgia On My Mind, perhaps a nod to Ray on the way out, bringing it right into a righteous Taking It To The Streets. They ate it up with spoons. The contractually obligated Reelin' In The Years rounded out the set with guitarist Jon Herington and Scaggs trading the dualing guitar lines Becker would normally handle. They exited stage right red velvet curtains drawn with a black backdrop dotted with blue lights.
Knowing on the way in that they'd been playing from a fairly stock setlist it didn't seem as if there was much chance for variation at all from night to night. They're was some variety though and on their 2010 tour they'd worked up a mini-set of slightly more obscure songs by The Band: Rag Mama Rag, The Shape I'm In and Caledonia Mission. Frankly nobody needs to hear The Weight again especially Canadians (although it would have gone over like gravy with this crowd) but it was more than a little surprising they didn't play a cut by The Band. Levon Helm's passing is one of the more significant historical musical moments of recent memory. And Fagen, who shares a wife (his second Libby Titus, Levon's first) and a stepdaughter (musician Amy Helm) with Levon, was very active in his life right up to his death. He was a frequent guest at the famous Ramble's on Levon's farm in Woodstock playing in the weeks before his death. The omission was for that reason noteworthy though it may be that Fagen more associates Levon with their Hudson River Valley then with their origins in Toronto and around Ontario. It may also have simply beeen that the band didn't have the material worked up.
Nonetheless presuming the encore would be the chunk of Steely Dan dynamos the audience had been holding out for and they'd been playing in pretty regular order all tour, this listener certainly didn't expect what came out of the gates next: Lido Shuffle. I want to attribute this choice of a lead encore to the really palpable outpouring of love for The Boz earlier in the show. And Boz Scaggs ripped into this staple like a man reborn with the entire group gusting behind him with a ragged and proud strength hitherto unseen. A little shared ancestry probably didn't hurt as this blustery number has a famous drum part by Dan alumnus Jeff Porcaro that Shannon Forrest brought to life here (although Porcaro played with everyone including notably Toto). The entire audience was rightly on it's feet singing along to every 'whoa oh oh oh'. One last time gonna get it.
Then they played Peg. Jon Herington - who'd been an ace all night (if not a little too-slick) did seem at times to leave little room for Boz to do little but step aside - played the solo made famous by Jay Graydon. In the same vein you could say 'Ready' Freddy Washington played Chuck Rainey's bass solo note for note (likewise Shannon Forrest played Rick Marotta's distinctive drum part). There's no room for improvisation really in a Steely Dan song although it's been known to happen in their live show of late. Thankfully Pretzel Logic is basically a blues tune and 'I would love to tour the Southland in a travelling minstrel show' just suited the whole theme of the tour. Fagen, McDonald and Scaggs traded verses with Boz seeming very sure footed delivering: 'I have never met Napoleon but I plan to find the time'.
Sly and The Family Stone's Thank You Falletin Me Be Mice Elf took the crowd a bit higher and then McDonald did a brilliant turn on Buddy Miles (from Jimi's Band of Gypsies) staple Them Changes. The girls from New York City and the boys in the band struck up the J.B.'s outro Drive Your Funky Soul and The Dukes Of September took their curtain call. The cold lake air kept up it's pretense of summer.
(originally published 08/13/12 at NorthernHeads.blogspot.com)
(setlist available at Dukes Of September, Toronto setlist 08/12/12)