As a student of musical history, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen knows that during the Great Depression musical revues were a popular form of live entertainment.
“There were Earl Carroll’s ‘Vanities’ and the Ziegfeld Follies,” he says. “From the audience point of view, it’s fun because revues are fast-moving, a lot of singers are involved and there’s a variety of music. And people just wanted to have a good time.”
So does that mean the “Dukes of September Rhythm Revue,” coming to PNC Pavilion at Riverbend Sept. 10 and featuring Fagen, Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, was launched in response to the ongoing Great Recession?
“No, but it occurs to me that sometimes these things happen on an unconscious level,” Fagen says.
There will be at least one difference between those Depression-era shows and the Dukes of September tour.
“They also had a lot of sex,” Fagen explains. “This won’t, but there will be two lovely back-up singers providing visual eye candy.”
In Dukes of September, the three Boomer musicians — who all first had commercial success in the 1970s — will take turns singing favorite oldies as well as dipping into their own back catalogs. They will have a seven-piece supporting band, plus back-up singers Carolyn Escoffery and Catherine Russell. Fagen will play piano and melodica, McDonald keyboards and Scaggs guitar. There is a possibility Fagen’s partner in Steely Dan, Walter Becker, will join up for the West Coast dates.
McDonald actually toured with Steely Dan in the 1970s, when it was still considered a group and not just the duo of Fagen and Becker; he then joined the Doobie Brothers.
Fagen, McDonald and Scaggs first worked together on the New York Rock & Soul Revue of the early 1990s and had a great time.
“We’ve always kept in touch and thought maybe we’d do this again,” Fagen says.
The show — with a set list that could change as the tour progresses — will have songs that impacted the stars when they were young and impressionable listeners of early Rock and R&B. Scaggs, for instance, is doing Chuck Berry; the back-up singers will solo on Muddy Waters’ “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love.”
But they’re also planning on doing material by their contemporaries or of their generation. Fagen, for instance, is taking on The Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” while Scaggs is doing the Bobby Womack-penned Teddy Pendergrass hit “Love T.K.O.” And McDonald is planning to tackle the late Buddy Miles’ smoking “Them Changes,” a classic of the late-’60s Psychedelic Soul movement.
They’ll also do a mini-tribute to The Band. That came about because Fagen has been sitting in with Levon Helm’s current band during some of its recent shows in Woodstock, where Helm lives. Helm was the drummer and one of three lead singers for The Band who, after a struggle with throat cancer, has had a remarkable comeback. Two of his recent albums have won Grammys in the Traditional Folk and Americana categories. Helm also at one time had a relationship with Libby Titus, who is now Fagen’s wife. It was Titus who first produced the shows that grew into the New York Rock & Soul Revue.
“I’ve been occasionally sitting in with Levon Helm’s band and mentioned (to Scaggs and McDonald) that I’ve been doing some of those tunes,” Fagen explains. “So, because we’re all fans, we each decided to do a Band song. I’m going to be doing a tune I actually haven’t played with Levon — ‘Caledonia Mission’ from The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink. Boz is doing ‘Rag Mama Rag’ and Mike does a great version of ‘The Shape I’m In.’ We do them consecutively.”
For all the emphasis on cover tunes, maybe the most interesting song scheduled to be performed during the show is Fagen’s gentle “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World),” from his 1982 solo album The Nightfly. A conceptual piece written from the point of view of a youthful, wide-eyed believer, it lovingly poked fun at the futuristic conceits voiced during 1957-58’s International Geophysical Year, when optimistic Americans believed their science would solve all the world’s problems. It is the rare song that is both ironic and wistful about the past.
“It’s really about people’s delusions of themselves,” Fagen says of the song. “It was written from a kid’s point of view long after I wasn’t a kid anymore. There were a lot of good intentions floating around at the time about how technology can solve the world’s problems, a lot of visions about how America could lead the world to a peaceful future.
“So there is a lot of irony in the lyrics. But there’s also a kind of innocence about that era, and that’s why I think it seems wistful.”
THE DUKES OF SEPTEMBER RHYTHM REVUE, featuring Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs, hits Riverbend’s PNC Pavilion Sept. 10. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.