Last Night: Dukes of September Rhythm Revue at The Woodlands

Dukes of September Rhythm Revue Featuring Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs & Donald Fagen Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion July 17, 2012

This show could have been a punchline waiting to happen. Somebody must have thought "Dukes of September" was a more regal name for this tour than the "Superstars of Soft Rock," but it was the same thing.

What we had here at the Woodlands Pavilion Tuesday night was Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, Texas-born Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, apparently estranged again from the Doobie Brothers (who are actually at the Pavilion with Chicago this Sunday). The snowy-haired trio was supported and nearly upstaged a couple of times by two female vocalists and a seven-piece band featuring keyboardist Jim Beard, whom Fagen explained is kind of a big deal in jazz circles. (He is.)

As much as anyone, the hawkish, angular Fagan played master of ceremonies, occasionally introducing his fellow Dukes or popping out behind his baby grand to play some kind of synthesizer/recorder hybrid that sounded like a tinny harmonica. Dispensing with any forced-sounding banter, the three headliners were content to keep their interaction to a musical level, which seemed to satisfy both themselves and the crowd.

The show was a revue in the old-school sense of the word, with the three mixing familiar favorites with songs engineered to highlight the three Dukes' particular talents and triumphs. Thus it opened with a couple of songs seemingly picked from the racks of Hollywood romcom montages -- "Who's That Lady?", Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music" -- and sprinkled crowd-pleasers like Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell," Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer In the City," and, of course, "Takin' It to the Streets" all the way through to Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Again)" and Band of Gypsys' "Them Changes" in the encore. Each of the featured female vocalists got a chance to shine, on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Piece of My Heart."

But soft-rock jokes aside, what it eventually revealed is that Scaggs and McDonald are two of the elite blue-eyed soul men on the planet, particularly Scaggs on the triumvirate of Muddy Waters' "The Same Thing," Teddy Pendergrass' "Love TKO" and his own velvety Silk Degrees treasure "Lowdown." McDonald, for his part, picked up an accordion and gave "You Never Can Tell" a Cajun twirl, and put some real gut into his lead vocal on Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "If You Don't Know Me By Now."

Fagen's contributions were a little bit different. Although his first lead vocal was another R&B deep cut, Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man," the handful of Steely Dan songs he sang spotlighted shady characters like notorious '60s LSD chemist Owsley Stanley ("Kid Charlemagne") and vapid near-jailbait "Hey Nineteen" in arrangements that engaged the entire band (especially lead guitarist John Huntington) and reaffirmed their reputation as some of the slickest, most cynical music ever to be called pop.

Tuesday evening was incontrovertible proof that the "yacht rock" fad has run its course among younger listeners; if there was anyone there younger than 40 besides myself, I didn't see them. It was merely a night of first-class musicianship and songs that have stood the test of time -- but not only that, songs that haven't lost their appeal even after you've heard them a million times before.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray