Steely Dan & The Doobie Brothers, May 24, Smart Financial Centre

Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Freddie Washington
Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Freddie Washington Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Houston’s first Classic Rock Co-Headlining Package Tour of the (almost) summer season arrives with this two-fer under “The Summer of Living Dangerously” banner. And both bands have much in common: a heyday of the 1970s, names derived from slang for questionable recreational items (marijuana and dildos), and super manager Irving Azoff.

Oh, and let’s not forget singer/keyboardist Michael McDonald – who could have easily sat in with both groups, recreating his original record parts for much of the evening!

click to enlarge The Doobie Brothers' Patrick Simmons, Marc Russo, Ed Toth, and Tom Johnston - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
The Doobie Brothers' Patrick Simmons, Marc Russo, Ed Toth, and Tom Johnston
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Starting the festivities were the Doobie Brothers, anchored by original singer/guitarists Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, along with later lineup multi-instrumentalist John McFee. The rest of the current band includes Marc Russo (sax), Ed Toth (drums), John Cowan (bass/vocals), ex-Little Feat keyboardist Billy Payne, and newest member Marc Quinones, former percussionist for the Allman Brothers Band. Russo and Payne in particular added funky instrumental flourishes through the set.

click to enlarge Patrick Simmons of the Doobie Brothers - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Patrick Simmons of the Doobie Brothers
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
The Brothers’ set list hasn’t varied much in their last several visits to Houston. Though, like all classic rock bands, they have to salt it heavy with the hits. “Jesus is Just Alright,” a wildly energetic “The Doctor,” “Takin’ it to the Streets,” and “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)” stood out for greatness, with Cowan contributing strong vocals on the latter two.

Doobie audiences can always tell when Johnston is really into a song, because he punches the air and lets out a “YEEAAHH” after a particularly good take on a number.

On this go round, though, they did also include some deeper cuts that don’t often get a live airing, including opener “Natural Thing” from 1973’s The Captain and Me and “Disciple” from 1972’s Toulouse Street.

Simmons’ “Black Water” was a highlight for the singalong audience, but its performance was fairly dry and rote. And the bluesy “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” just needs to be retired at this point.

The Doobie Brothers live continue to deliver fine, meat-and-potatoes bar rock with sonic tentacles reaching into jazz, R&B, and blues. They are definitely dependable and on occasion, even inspired.

As for Steely Dan, the thought of their future at all was in doubt with the unexpected September 2017 death of co-founding guitarist Walter Becker. He, along with co-founding singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen, are essentially “Steely Dan” and the only constant members.

click to enlarge Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Keith Carlock - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Keith Carlock
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Becker’s widow and Fagen have subsequently launched legal missives toward each other about ownership and usage of the name Steely Dan and future tour royalties, and things only look to get uglier as the suits and counter suits wind their way through court. Fagen himself has gone on the record as not minding touring under a different name, though concert promoters and planners – including the ones on this current tour – obviously feel differently.

But as much as it pains me to write it, while Becker certainly contributed mightily to the music and lyric writing on Steely Dan’s records, in the studio and on the stage he left the heavy lifting to a litany of other axe carriers. So while his absence this night was certainly noted and missed, it really did not affect the music at all.

Maybe that’s because Becker and Fagen always, always surrounded themselves with the cream of the crop of musicians, and this tour is no exception. The 2018 Dan brings back longtime VIP/band anchors Jon Herington (guitar) and Keith Carlock (drums).

The rest of the lineup includes experienced Dan players Freddie Washington (bass), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone), Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), and Jim Beard (keyboards). A trio of talented backup singers was made up of touring veteran Carolyn Leonhart along with La Tanya Hall and Catherine Russell.

Opening with a number from a Fagen solo record, Steely Dan soon got down to business with a string of hits (including almost all of the Aja album, their most popular) and a couple of deeper cuts.

Though even songs like standouts “Hey Nineteen,” “Kid Charlemagne,” “Peg,” and “My Old School” got some instrumental breathing room outside of their original 45 single time constraint. “Aja” shimmered as always, “Green Earrings” featured an extended, funky midsection, and Herrington’s guitar work on “Bodhisattva” and closer “Reelin’ in the Years” (one of rock’s most famous solos) scorched.

click to enlarge Sorry, no mini-review by Vincent Ruggiero, aka "The Classic Rock Kid" this time. He got home WAY too late on a school night to make the deadline. But - just like in the lyrics to "Show Biz Kids" - he got the Steely Dan T-shirt! - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
Sorry, no mini-review by Vincent Ruggiero, aka "The Classic Rock Kid" this time. He got home WAY too late on a school night to make the deadline. But - just like in the lyrics to "Show Biz Kids" - he got the Steely Dan T-shirt!
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Singer and now trivia question answer David Palmer was a brief, early member of Steely Dan but his lead on “Dirty Work” made it one of the band’s first hits. As in other recent tours, it was recast as an ode of lament sung entirely by the female backing vocalists. And damn it, this seemingly most male of lyrics still worked with just a flip of gender.

Holding the entire enterprise together, of course, is Donald Fagen. Seemingly more animated and relaxed than previous times I’ve seen him (perhaps knowing he has to fill some of Becker’s onstage void?) he simply sang and played with a vigor and even newness behind those omnipresent shades and Beat hipster chin beard, rocking back and forth like the Jewish Caucasian Ray Charles.

His keyboard is now placed front and center stage, and still decorated with a tapestry featuring Duke Ellington's Band (but not Charlie Parker's band, the "saxophone sensation" so commemorated on the Pretzel Logic song).

It’s still hard to fathom how Steely Dan refused to tour for most of the ‘70s due in large part to Fagen’s disdain for live performance, yet he’s been a mastiff of a road dog for the past two decades.

Fagen also apparently likes to down regular Coca-Cola onstage. The thin black band placed over the distinctive logo and can color to avoid product placement fooled no one.

As to what happens with the band, the name, and the music after this tour (likely planned prior to Becker’s death) is not clear. But what is crystallized is how fresh and crisp the music of Steely Dan still is to contemporary ears all these decades later. And – right after the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” likely the young rock fan’s first exposure to jazz music. Which would certainly please a certain Mr. Fagen.

click to enlarge The Doobies' Tom Johnston, John McFee, and Billy Payne - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
The Doobies' Tom Johnston, John McFee, and Billy Payne
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Set List
The Doobie Brothers

Natural Thing
Rockin’ Down the Highway
Road Angel
South City Midnight Lady
Dark Eyed Cajun Woman
Jesus is Just Alright
Eyes of Silver
Takin’ it to the Streets
The Doctor
Black Water
Long Train Runnin’
China Grove
Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)
Listen to the Music

click to enlarge The (almost) Full Dan Band - PHOTO BY BOB RUGGIERO
The (almost) Full Dan Band
Photo by Bob Ruggiero
Steely Dan
Hallelujah Time (band instrumental cover)
Green Flower Street
Hey Nineteen
Black Friday
Black Cow
Time Out of Mind
Kid Charlemagne
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Green Earrings
Dirty Work
Home at Last
Keep That Same Old Feeling (band instrumental cover)
My Old School
Reelin’ in the Years
The Untouchables (band instrumental cover)
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero