Boz Scaggs digs deeply into gospel, New Orleans and R&B on recent tour
Susan Whitall/ Detroit News Music Writer
July 20, 2011
It's hard to find many fresh ideas in the summer amphitheater schedule, but the pairing of blue-eyed soul veterans Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald at DTE Energy Theater next week won't be the usual "summer shed" oldies act or greatest hits package.
Mindful of the effect of the economy on both their fans' wallets and on their own, Scaggs and McDonald share a band for this tour, although each does his own set.
"Mike and I take turns opening and closing the show," says Scaggs, 67, calling in between tour stops in Georgia and North Carolina. "At the end of the evening we get together and do some songs jointly."
As often happens, a money crunch forced a more creative approach.
"A lot of us did what we could do to try to get the most value for people's ticket price," Scaggs says. "Mike and I have done things together in the past, and our audiences are somewhat similar. I gain some new fans and Mike does, too, so it works out in a lot of ways. A lot of value for everybody."
McDonald and Scaggs share a management team and are on and off the road with Donald Fagen of Steely Dan as the Dukes of September, doing a set of R&B cover tunes as a unit. (The Dukes will resume touring in the fall).
Each enjoyed a similar career trajectory, starting as journeymen band members (Scaggs as a singer/guitarist with the Steve Miller Band, McDonald singing and on keyboards for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers) before embarking on solo careers.
Both artists have also enjoyed an avid fanbase of R&B fans over the years in cities like Detroit McDonald for his soulful solo hits (and his more recent Motown tribute albums), and Scaggs a particular local favorite with his cool, urbane persona and jazzy breakout hits "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle" from the 1976 album "Silk Degrees."
The soulful "Lowdown" particularly embodied the zeitgeist of the mid-'70s, shooting to No. 3 on the charts (the album "Silk Degrees" hit No. 2) and launching Scaggs into the highest reaches of the music business.
"Detroit was a particularly great town," Scaggs reminisces, of that time. "A lot of fans of soul music. There's a few of those urban places, Philadelphia's another one, Chicago's pretty good that way, that are the hippest cities for the kind of music that Mike and I do."
He has particularly fond memories of Detroit's R&B disc jockeys, on stations WCHB and WJLB. "During the early part of my career when I went to Detroit, I was really digging those guys. We sort of identified with each other. We had common music interests so we'd seek them out."
Onstage at DTE next week, both Scaggs and McDonald will give the fans some of their signature hits. But they won't linger too long on the obvious. "We do a (set)list of about 10 songs, including a Leonard Cohen song, a Sam & Dave song, a Joe Simon piece, and a couple of songs Mike and I each have," Scaggs says. He's loath to be more specific, insisting he wants the audience to be surprised.
But the Web reveals all, so we know that in Pittsburgh Scaggs started with his song "Jojo," and that one of the cover songs they did at the end of the evening included the 1971 Joe Simon hit "Drowning in a Sea of Love."
What will make the evening really interesting are their forays beyond pop/R&B and pop/jazz, into the rootsy New Orleans music and gospel that are so integral to each man's sound. In Pittsburgh, the set included the Fats Domino classic "Sick and Tired of Fooling Around" and Chuck Berry's Crescent City-flavored "You Never Can Tell." They closed the show on a high energy note with the Doobie Brothers' "Takin' it to the Streets."
The McDonald/Scaggs tour has been churning on through the recent heatwave, something Scaggs is definitely not used to, living in cool, temperate northern California. He and wife Dominique have a place in Napa Valley (including a winery, Scaggs Vineyard) and an apartment in San Francisco, where he retains an interest in the blues club Slim's.
"I'm not used to the extreme heat," Scaggs admits. "Otherwise it's great to be outdoors, on a nice evening."
His last album was 2008's "Speak Low" one song from that album, "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me," is on a new album, "A Tribute to Billie Holiday" on StormVox Records so while touring, Scaggs is trying to write songs for an album he'll record late this year or early in 2012.
Consumed by touring and keeping his guitar playing tuned up (he plays more onstage now than in years), Scaggs isn't listening to a lot of music when he's offstage. "I try to let my ears cool off," he says. "I've had this new record in the works for a couple of years, but with all the roadwork I'm doing, it just accumulates. The simple answer is yes (he's doing a new album). What it's all about, I can't say. It just keeps changing."