I don’t usually focus as much on national bands as I do New England’s home grown talent. Yet, it isn’t every day this reviewer gets to see two of his favorite bands in one venue. Yes, I’ve been listening to the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan since my childhood in the 1970s. My father had the Doobie Brothers playing in his van and motor home on 8 track stereo and Steely Dan was on my grandfather’s AM car radio.
Seeing both acts last Saturday evening at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts was a treat for my ears, my childhood memories, and for my soul. Nobody from the classic rock era can rock an arena like The Doobie Brothers. Yet, when they went into “Jesus Is Just All Right,” “China Grove,” and many other of their up tempo hits, they had everyone in the audience singing along. Imagine my delight when I saw a couple of teenagers sitting with their parents a few seats in front of me singing to a band that’s been around since the 1970s.
The Doobie Brothers let off a beautiful feeling of expression when they performed their acoustic hit “Black Water.” Here, the entire audience was singing to this ditty sang by the legendary Doobies leader Patrick Simmons. Their cover of “Jesus Is Just All Right” found them rocking with great harmonies and they moved that familiar groove and bass line around like nobody’s business. “Rockin’ Down The Highway” was another cruising down the highway song that likely reminded many in the audience of their Volkswagen Bus ride or Ford Econoline Van drive to the see the Doobies in concert during their heyday.
Simmons and his fellow original member Tom Johnson continued to rock out on vocals and guitar throughout the night. Joining these two original members were adept players who have some claim to fame in their own right. Little Feat’s Bill Payne supplied plenty of warm Doobie Brothers style warmth with his abundance of keyboard work. Multi-instrumentalist John McPhee brought plenty of old time charm to “Black Water” with his sensitive fiddle work and his peddle steel guitar added a depth of authenticity and soul to the Doobie’s numerous classics. Nashville bass player, John Cowan, a name bass player in his own town, did justice to the rumbling rhythm section of The Doobie Brothers last Saturday night.
The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan are calling their current joint tour The Summer Of Living Dangerously. Marked by a cool concert billboard highway sign and t-shirt of an early double wing propeller airplane with a stunt man dangling from its lower quadrant, it could symbolize Steely Dan’s surviving member Donald Fagen’s quest to bring the music to live audiences without his longtime partner Walter Becker.
Becker, who died from esophageal cancer a year ago, was Fagen’s musical partner from 1970 until their partnership ended in 1982. The pair had played numerous concert tours even after suspending their live tours and they released a couple of albums of newer material in the early 2000’s. Fagen was even more low key than usual last Saturday night, and it could only be perceived that he was feeling the loss.
Fagen referenced his late musical partner only once during the show, before performing one of their biggest hits. “Back in 1978 my partner Walter Becker and I were asked to compose a theme song for a movie,” Fagen recounted. “The movie was a stinker, but we had a lot of success with that song. Actually, the movie wasn’t that bad.” Fagen and his current configuration went into “FM,” a performance that was marked by the song’s remarkably smooth vocals and even smoother changes.
Fagen relied on his two female backing vocalists to bring texture to most of his songs and he had to rely on them for additional support at a few points in the show. His smooth, flowing vocal was intact for much of the evening as he recreated the experience of “Black Cow,” “My Old School,” and “Reelin’ In The Years.” Fagen’s nimble and assertive keyboard work easily brought to life the old melodies and the textures of keys that they were built upon. Lead guitarist Jon Herington, a touring musician of choice for Steely Dan since 1999, filled in admirably on those lead phrases that require a jazz background to successfully execute. This was most apparent on “Reelin’ In The Years.” Herington faithfully captured the spirit of that wildly unwieldy lead guitar line while Fagen carried the crowd through its family lyrics and chord progressions.
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was one that found Fagen recreating the vibe of this mysterious buddy song. We might not be sure who Rikki will be calling when she gets home or why she has to feel better first, but the vibe of the song, as usual, suggested an intimate camaraderie of friends. It was revealed in old interviews that Rikki was a writer Fagen had met at Bard College. Fagen’s keyboard work was rich with notes and with emotive resonance.
“Peg” was as bouncy and sprightly as ever. Yet, the highest point was during “Josie,” a song where Fagen expressed the joy of a friend returning to party. The repetitive chorus came alive as Fagen belted the timeless words: “She prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire.”
Anyone who denies they can relate to the classic Dan gem “Dirty Work” is a liar. We’ve all been set up for that kind of fall and Fagen, with his amazing support players, including a four piece horn section, bring that familiar vibe right up into our faces. His organ notes became the somber emotive quality, feeling at once like a comfort and a warning.
There were many high moments during the Steely Dan half of this show, and anyone who has a chance should buy a ticket immediately to their other area shows. We don’t know how many tours Mr. Fagen has left in him. His and Becker’s jazz inspired rock and roll cannot be easily duplicated and it’s becoming more of a lifetime opportunity to hear this music in a live setting.