Steely Dan And The Doobie Brothers End Double Headliner Tour On High Notes

Both bands deliver powerful sets at New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center

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The Summer Of Living Dangerously was supposed to have wrapped up on Saturday in Bethel, N.Y. Instead, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers brought their double-headlining tour to a close yesterday at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. – and what a glorious night it was for both bands!

Initially, the show had been scheduled for July 6. But due to an illness of one of the musicians, the gig had been postponed on short notice. Luckily, it didn’t get cancelled altogether. After all, as The Doobies’ Tom Johnston put it, this was the end of “a long and draining tour” with Steely Dan. But while more than 30 dates crammed in just three months must have been exhausting, you surely didn’t notice any of the musicians were worn out. On the contrary, at times, it seemed they were playing as if it was their last gig ever!

The Summer Of Living Dangerously

As I usually do leading up to concerts, I checked YouTube for recent performances, setlist.fm and online reviews to get a better feeling what to expect. In this case, I noticed the reviews were consistently great for The Doobies but more on the mixed side for Steely Dan. Some reviewers were disappointed that unlike the southern rockers, Donald Fagen left out Dan gems like Deacon Blues and Do It Again. Others noted Fagen’s voice sounded challenged, especially on the high notes. YouTube clips I had watched prior to the show seemed to confirm some of what the above reviews noted.

Based on the above, I had definitely adjusted my expectations – after all, who wants to be disappointed! As such, I was anticipating a solid set from The Doobies and more of a mixed bag from Donald Fagen/Steely Dan. What I feel I got instead were kick-ass performances from each! While Fagen’s vocal performance may have varied during some of the tour’s previous shows, I thought he was in great shape last night! Maybe it helped that the boy from Passaic, N.J. was home at last, as he acknowledged at some point. Fagen also showed signs that he enjoyed himself – something I understand he’s not particularly known for!

The Doobie Brothers.jpg
Current lineup of The Doobie Brothers (left to right): John Cowan (bass, vocals), Patrick Simmons (guitars, vocals, co-founder), Ed Tooth (drums), Marc Russo (saxophone), Tom Johnston (guitars, vocals, co-founder), John McFee (guitars, pedal steel, dobro, fiddle, vocals, core member since 1979) and Bill Payne (keyboards; not in photo)

The Doobies kicked off the great night. From the very first bars of Natural Thing to the last note of the second encore Listen To The Music, these guys sounded as terrific as they did the first time I saw them some 20 years ago: the harmony singing, the dynamic of the music – everything was still there, and it all still sounded fresh – pretty amazing! What more could you possibly ask for?

Time for some clips. I decided to capture and use my own video material. This comes with all the caveats you have, recording with a smartphone that isn’t latest generation and when you’re not exactly sitting in the first row. But at least it’s authentic!:-)

First up: Rockin’ Down The Highway. Penned by Johnston, this great rocker appeared on Toulouse Street, The Doobies’ second studio album from July 1972 and their commercial breakthrough.

Another classic from Toulouse Street is Jesus Is Just Alright. For some reason, I had always thought of it as an original Doobies tune – I was wrong. According to Wikipedia, the song, a gospel tune, was written by Arthur Reid Reynolds and first recorded by his band The Art Reynolds Singers for their 1966 studio album Tellin’ It Like It is. Who knew.

In general, I’m more drawn to the early phase of The Doobies – basically, their first five studio records. One of the exceptions is Cycles, the band’s 10th studio album from May 1989, the first record following their reunion after the 1982 break-up. One of the tunes from Cycles I dig is the opener The Doctor, a co-write by Johnston and the record’s co-producers Charlie Midnight and Eddie Schwartz. Last night, the nice honky-tonk piano by Bill Payne and Johnston’s guitar work stood out to me. It’s just a seductive tune overall that’s very reminiscent of the early Doobies.

Another classic by the southern rockers is Long Train Runnin’. Written by Johnston, the tune was included on the band’s third studio album The Captain And Me, released in March 1973. I’ve always dug the combination of funk and rock in this song. This is also a great track to call out killer saxophonist Marc Russo. The guy must have been blowing out his lungs! Long Train Runnin’ was the last track of the band’s regular set, so I guess that’s the reason why they extended it. It meant more great sax playing. The audience certainly loved it!

And while I could keep on raving about southern rockers, I also need to get to Fagen & Co., so I’m going to wrap up The Doobies’ section with an additional gem from The Captain And Me: China Grove, yet another Johnston composition and the first encore. If you’re curious what else they played, you can check here.

After such a dynamic set from The Doobies, the bar certainly had been set high for Steely Dan. Of course, Fagen and his former partner Walter Becker have been known for playing with top-notch musicians, so I hadn’t had any real concerns the band somehow wouldn’t be up to par. It was mostly Fagen I had wondered about. But as noted at the outset, he had a great night, so I really couldn’t have been more happy!

Steely Dan Collage
Current lineup of Steely Dan: Upper row (left to right): Jon Herington (guitar), Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums), Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax) and Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax). Lower row (left to right): Jim Pugh (trombone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet) and The Danettes La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell & Carolyn Leonhart. Far right: Donald Fagen

Following a set-opening jazz instrumental performed by just the band (see lineup in caption of above photo collage I put together), during which the musicians immediately took the opportunity to shine, Fagen entered the stage. In a deviation from previous set lists I had seen, they played Black Cow, the opener from Dan’s masterpiece Aja. Apparently, it was swapped with Josie, which during earlier gigs had been included later in the set. Here’s my clip.

Next up: Black Friday from Katy Lied, Steely Dan’s fourth studio album that appeared in March 1975. The record was the first after the break-up of the band’s original five-piece lineup. At that time, Fagen and Becker had decided to stop touring and become a studio band. Additionally, they increasingly were relying on top-notch session musicians for their recordings. Among the latter were guitarist Rick Derringer, drummer Jeff Porcaro and Michael McDonald (backing vocals), who BTW just a month after the record’s release joined The Doobie Brothers.

While as previously noted Fagen & co.  didn’t play Do It Again, one of my favorite early Dan tunes, they performed Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, another early gem I dig. It appeared on Dan’s third studio album Pretzel Logic from February 1974. Also released separately as the record’s first single in April that year, it became their biggest hit, climbing all the way to no. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

Steely Dan didn’t skip Can’t Buy A Thrill altogether. In fact, they played two tunes from their studio debut released in November 1972. One was Dirty Work, which prominently featured the band’s excellent backing vocalists La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell and Carolyn Leonhart, a.k.a. The Danettes.

The last tune of the regular set was My Old School from Steely Dan’s sophomore album Countdown To Ecstasy, which came out in July 1973. Like predecessor Bodhisattva, it featured Connor Kennedy, a young guitar virtuoso hailing from Woodstock, N.Y., who had toured with Fagen last year as part of a band called The Nightflyers.

The amazing Reelin’ In The Years, the second tune from Can’t Buy A Thrill, was the first encore and the last Dan tune of the night. To see what other songs they played you can check here. Reelin’ In The Years also included Kennedy who traded guitar licks with Jon Herington. Unfortunately, while I was recording this great performance, Facebook cheerfully informed me that something had gone wrong and that my live video had stopped – bummer! But with close to 4 minutes, at least I captured a good chunk of it, so decided it was worthwhile keeping and including the clip in this post. Plus, Fagen’s outgoing “yah!” that precedes the performance is kind of cool!

Based on what I experienced last night, I can highly recommend the show, except of course that particular tour is now over. But looking at their schedules, each band already has additional dates on the calendar for this year. The Doobies resume performing in San Francisco on September 20 together with the Eagles – that should be fun! There are also dates in San Diego; Clearwater, Fla., Greensburg, Pa.; and two special shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre in mid-November, where they will perform the albums Toulouse Street and The Captain And Me in their entirety, along with other songs.

Steely Dan has 18 additional dates on the schedule starting October 1, including a nine-gig residency at the Beacon Theatre, beginning October 17. Like The Doobies, these are special performances dedicated to select Dan albums, including The Royal Scam (May 1976), Aja, Countdown to Ecstasy and Gaucho (November 1980). There are also shows focusing on Fagen’s first solo album The Nightfly (October 1982), a gig billed as “greatest hits,” as well as an on-demand concert, based on fan voting.

I have to say, Dan’s Aja performance sounds really tempting, especialy since they left out Deacon Blues and Josie last night. Plus. I’ve never been to the Beacon Theatre, a venue where The Allman Brothers used to perform, making it something like “holy ground.” You see what I did here? Trying to rationale spending additional money on yet another concert. We shall see!

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Doobie Brothers official website, Steely Dan official website, YouTube

Clips & Pix: The Doobie Brothers/Listen To The Music

With my Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan show being out less than one week, both bands are increasingly on my mind. Earlier today, I also saw on Facebook that 46 years ago today on July 1, 1972, The Doobies released their second studio album Toulouse Street, which included the above gem as the opener. Other standouts on the record are Rockin’ Down The Highway and Jesus Is Just Alright.

The Doobie Brothers 2018
(Left to right) John McFee, Tom Johnston & Patrick Simmons

Listen To The Music was written by guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston. Together with Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals) he remains as a co-founding member of The Doobies’ current lineup. Multi-instrumentalist John McFee, who joined in early 1979, is the band’s third permanent member. The current touring lineup also features Bill Payne (keyboards), Marc Russo (saxophone), Ed Tooth (drums) and John Cowan (bass, vocals).

Based on reviews I’ve seen, The Doobies are getting high marks for sounding great and including their best known songs in their set. That’s pretty much the same I recall from seeing them once before some 18-20 years ago. Can’t wait to listen to the music again!

Sources: Wikipedia, The Doobie Brothers official website, YouTube

Clips & Pix: The Doobie Brothers/ China Grove

The Southern rockers turned up the heat at The Classic West

Nice clip of The Doobie Brothers playing China Grove at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Saturday as part of their show at The Classic West. China Grove was included on 1973’s The Captain and Me, the band’s third studio album, and was also released as the record’s second single. The tune was written by Tom Johnston (guitar, vocals), one of the band’s remaining original members; the other one is Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals). Since last year, the Doobie Brothers have been a six-piece band.

Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, YouTube

A New Breed of Classic Rock Festivals?

Desert Trip and now The Classic look like the start of a new trend in the concert business: The mega rock festival targeting an older fan base with money to spend.

Last year’s Desert Trip was a dream come true for every classic rock fan, who had the time and money to get to Southern California’s Coachella Valley. I recall reading accounts on Facebook from people who were there and absolutely blown away – if time and money wouldn’t have been an issue, I would have been there as well, no question! With ticket sales totaling $160 million, the festival was also quite lucrative. So it’s perhaps not surprising that it was not the last of its kind.

Over two weekends in October 2016, which amounted to six days altogether, Desert Trip had a spectacular line-up: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Roger Waters and The Who. And so will The Classic West in Los Angeles and The Classic East in New York City. Each of the two-day weekend concerts this July will feature Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, Journey and Earth, Wind and Fire.

Music festivals in and of itself obviously have been around for a long time. What seems to be different about this new breed of rock spectacle is that it exclusively features big-name music artists who have come of age. Many of them no longer record new music, or if they do, release new material at a much slower pace. Recently, I saw Stevie Nicks quoted in what I believe was a Rolling Stone story, who said the reward from recording a new album in this day and age is simply no longer worth the effort to spend endless hours in the studio. It’s a pretty sad statement, but there is evidence to back it up.

Last July, Billboard reported U.S. album sales during the first half of 2016 were the worst since 1991, falling by more than 13% year-over-year. Over the same period, music streaming was up close to 60%. But that’s not much of consolation for most artists who hardly make any money from streaming. By comparison, concerts are much more lucrative, especially when you appeal to an older audience that generally has more money to spend than young people. Classic rock is one of the music genres that is popular among more mature audiences.

In a New York Times story about the upcoming The Classic music events, Irving Azoff, who represents all of the six performing acts in full or in part, put it as follows: “Classic-rock radio listeners have been underserved by current festival lineups.” The big event that comes to my mind in this context is the iHeart Radio Festival, for which Azoff’s observation is certainly true.

Tickets for The Classic are only available for both days, with regular admissions ranging between $150 and $950 plus fees. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are also various VIP packages, with the most expensive one topping out at a whopping $2,750. Live Nation, the promoter for The Classic, clearly must be convinced that the feeling of having been underserved will open some wallets big time!

I have mixed feelings about the commercial aspects of the shows. Every artist deserves to earn a reasonable living, and it’s certainly true that with all the changes in the music business that has become a lot harder. On the other hand, I have to believe the artists performing at Desert Trip and The Classic already made their money when records were still selling well and are not exactly living in poverty.

Another way to look at this new breed of rock festival is to consider how much it would cost to see the artists in separate shows. Through that lens, a ticket price of $150, $300 and even $600 doesn’t look that outrageous. It translates to $25, $50 and $100 per act based on six artists. Most people would consider a price of $50 to see the Eagles as a bargain. In fact, when I saw them in Atlantic City in 2015, I had to dole out a lot more cash – though I have to add it was one of the most amazing shows I have seen and as such worth every cent! And that sentiment brings me to the next point.

A big part of going to see your rock & roll heroes in concert is emotional. From a strictly rational perspective it’s hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars. But there is just nothing like being in a stadium seeing Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen, and screaming from the top of your lungs together with thousands of other fans. It’s rock & roll!

And as long as great rock music exists, people will keep spending a lot of money on concerts. I also have no doubt that the new breed of rock festival will continue. In fact, I just saw this story about Desert Trip 2017. The second installment will be bigger than its debut and feature 21 artists. The headliners are REO Speedwagon, .38 Special, Kansas, Blue Öyster Cult, Styx and Supertramp. Some of the other artists include James Taylor, Foreigner and Chicago.

Here is the official video teaser for The Classic. I’m very tempted. I’ve been to great shows with all performers, except for Steely Dan, which I would love to see.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Billboard, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, YouTube