Most musicians start off playing because it’s something they love to do. Although it would be a fine thing to get paid, they’ll do it for nothing if they have to, because once you commit to being a musician, you can’t just turn it off. (Rather like being a writer, it occurs to me.) As you struggle up the greasy pole of success, music becomes your job. It surely remains rewarding in the long run, but it is, like any other job, often full of drudgery and difficulty, too. After you have achieved success enough to stop worrying about how you’re going to feed the cat, shoe the kids, and pay the mortgage, you can return to playing music for the same reason you started—just for the hell of it.
The Dukes of September are playing just for the hell of it. The 12-piece band, fronted by Donald Fagen, Boz Scaggs, and Michael McDonald, played the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee last night. The show was a little less than half familiar hit songs by Fagen, Boz, and McD; the rest was covers of old songs the band members have enjoyed hearing and/or playing over the years. A few of the covers were mind-blowing: Fagen getting his Marvin Gaye on with “Trouble Man,” Boz leading the way on Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” and McD leaving me breathless with a gorgeously soulful “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” However: the most surprising cover of the bunch might have been the encore version of Sly Stone’s “Thank You.”
The hits were pretty cool, too. I wasn’t expecting that Boz would choose “Miss Sun,” but he did. “Kid Charlemagne” has been an important part of the Fagen/Steely Dan setlists for years, and it’s always performed on a ragged edge, just this side of spinning out of control. The last time I saw Boz live, he did his unplugged version of “Lowdown,” but last night’s was a cranked-up full band version complete with a pair of flutes. His “Lido Shuffle” was the first encore, and left the theater nothing but a smoking crater full of dazed and happy survivors.
(Based on the information at Setlist.fm, the Dukes change up their list a bit now and then. Last night’s list is the same one they performed in suburban Detroit on Friday night.)
The other nine members of the Dukes are mostly veterans of the Steely Dan touring band, including guitarist Jon Herington, who’s a monster player we’ve dug for a long time. To call Carolyn Leonhart and Catherine Russell backup singers isn’t accurate—each of them got their own spot in the show, on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and “Piece of My Heart” respectively. Each also duetted with a Duke: Leonhart with Fagen on Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” (!) and Russell with Boz on “Miss Sun.”
Our great night started long before concert time, with dinner on the Milwaukee River at the Rock Bottom Brewery patio one block from the theater. We snapped a few pictures with the Bronze Fonz, oddly situated next to a defunct Chinese restaurant on the other side of the river. On the way into the Riverside, we bumped into Joe Heuer, the Rock and Roll Guru. Joe’s a longtime friend of this blog, and it was great to meet him in the real world and visit for a minute or two. (I can confirm that his Twitter avatar is an excellent likeness.)
As each of us struggles up our own greasy pole of success, however we choose to define it, we encounter drudgery and difficulty, day after day. Every now and then, however, we see there’s another life—a few hours exactly where we want to be, doing exactly what we want to be doing. Last night was like that.