You may think you’ve never heard of the Dukes of September, but you have.
The trio of Donald Fagen (Steely Dan), Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers) and Boz Scaggs has dozens of ’70s-era pop hits between them. Touring for a second time, after a successful inaugural go-round in 2010, the trio’s run through their own catalogs as well as the heritage pop, rock and R&B songs that so inspired them hearkens back to a similarly programmed concert series led by Fagen in the early ’90s called the New York Rock & Soul Revue.
The Dukes, though, have many more cities — including Chicago — on their minds.
THE DUKES OF SEPTEMBER RHYTHM REVUE
7:30 p.m. Aug. 22
Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay roads, Highland Park
Tickets: $27 lawn, $85 pavilion; (847) 266-5100; ravinia.org
“One of the opening songs on the set is a heavy nod to Chicago — and it’s one of the key elements that we really look to fill in our set — but I’m not going to tell you what it is,” says a cagey Scaggs during a teleconference with him and McDonald. “There’s an awful lot of Chicago, from Joe Simon — Joe Simon was Chicago, right?”
“And wasn’t Willie Dixon from Chicago?” asks McDonald.
“That’s right, yes,” Scaggs says. “We certainly have those pockets. Detroit has always figured in our music, and so has Memphis, and New Orleans has figured, Philadelphia. New York, certainly. It’s one of the ways we process this stuff. … When I think of Philly I think of the early great stuff, like from doo-wop days and then from the Philly International days with all those great groups. I kind of classify things from the city.”
“We’ve even actually thrown in a couple of L.A. songs that are seemingly the far end of the spectrum, like some Beach Boys stuff. And San Francisco, too, for that matter,” McDonald says. “We could do a city-by-city tour. We could probably take a city and make a set out of it from the cities I’ve mentioned being great R&B capitals. You know, it wouldn’t be difficult I think to come up with that set from Memphis or from Philadelphia or New Orleans. Chicago certainly would be a rich source.”
Now they’re really got their gears turning, zeroing in on Chitown.
“Chicago — all the Delta blues players have drifted north up the river and were able to make lives for themselves in Chicago in the clubs,” says Professor Scaggs, “and then those great record labels that put out the early stuff. That has come to define so much of what contemporary music is about. Rock and roll — it seems that a whole hell of a lot of it came out of Chicago. Certainly from Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy — from that era alone I could go on and on.”
“And like you mentioned, Boz, the pop era, too. It’s like Joe Simon and Curtis Mayfield, and these great pop artists,” McDonald says. “I don’t [mean to] say pop artist, but I mean R&B, more kind of pop-R&B artist that at the time were more contemporary or as the even older blues guys.”
That blurred line between pop and R&B has been the focus of each of these players, and it’s where they mined their gold records.
Steely Dan mixed classic R&B grooves and winky narratives into an Ellingtonia sheen (“Do It Again,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Hey Nineteen”). McDonald sang backup with Steely Dan in the ’70s before taking the reins of the Doobie Brothers for some of the band’s biggest, R&B influenced pop hits (“Takin’ It to the Streets,” “It Keeps You Runnin’,” “Minute by Minute,” “What a Fool Believes”). Scaggs gained fame as a guitarist in the ’60s before blanketing radio with solo hits (“Lido Shuffle,” “Lowdown,” “Breakdown Dead Ahead”).
The Dukes tour began with a smattering of the trio’s individual hits but grew into a celebration of their roots, swinging for the fences with selections as wide as the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” to the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street.”
In other words, this is not a project for creating something wholly new. This is unabashed nostalgia.
“I think if we learned anything [on the first tour] it’s really only that maybe this time we can push the envelope a little bit more with some of the material,” McDonald says. “In the first round, I think with this tour, we were wondering how obscure we could get. For me, a song I hadn’t heard since I was 14 years old was one of the songs we did. Now we do our originals too, to bring that to the table.
“It’s kind of self-indulgent. But I think it’s self-indulgent for the audience, too, in a way, because it’s not too many shows where you’re going to see this much material that is kind of old and obscure. Our aim, I think, is always to pick those songs that when you hear them, they’re the songs that people go, ‘Oh, man, I haven’t heard that in years.’ But they remember the song.”