The Dukes Of September
Bob Lefsetz / Lefsetz Letter
Oct. 01, 2010
Muddy Waters played "What Now America".
The music business mantra is repetition. People have to hear it enough to love it, youve got to beat it into their brains. Then there are tracks you hear once and you cant forget them, and need to hear them again to save your soul. Thats how I felt about "What Now America". I borrowed the album from Muddy, whod already achieved this moniker even though freshman year had just begun. Id drop the needle and listen to "What Now America" again and again. The intimacy was like a late night phone call from your best friend, when people were more interested in exchanging stories, making a personal connection, than making money.
The next time I was in the metropolis, I bought "Barrel". And then "Recital". And "Lee Michaels". I was reveling in the entire catalog of this guy whod never had a hit, but was suddenly a giant in my world.
"The War" on "Recital" was as good as "What Now America". There was that same intimate feeling. But "Heighty Hi" was something completely different, like wed all had too many beers, were a bit woozy and the band got up on stage and started to play.
And thats exactly what the Dukes Of Septembers rendition of Lee Michaels classic last night was like.
Its great enough when a band reaches down deep and plays a cover of a song that only you thought you loved, but when they knock it out of the park you feel this inner spark, this elation thats the essence of life.
DONT MESS UP A GOOD THING
The classic rock artists raped and pillaged in the seventies, went on tour in the nineties and early twentieth century at exorbitant prices for boomer listeners who wanted to relive their youth, now what?
Its creepy to see the oldsters trot out the warhorses one more time. Its like being sentenced to an endless "Groundhog Day". Like being in college forever. At some point, you want to graduate and get on with your life.
But this is illegal in the rock world. You cant take a risk, your audience cant handle it. You cant even age. Youve got to get plastic surgery and diet down to look like a twentysomething when the audience is now round and lined and nothing like you. Its like a living "Sunset Boulevard". And now the audience has moved on. Theyve seen the Stones. Theyve heard the hits. They want something new.
The Dukes Of September is something new by people who are old.
Its Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and Donald Fagen fronting nine associated players in a motherfucking soul band. Its like famous artists came to your wedding or Bar Mitzvah. Sure, theyll play a few hits, but you want to hear your favorites, you want to rock out, you want to have a good time, you want to have a party.
RAG MAMA RAG
Hail stones beatin on the roof
The bourbon is a hundred proof
Well, it wasnt exactly hail, but the chain lightning had dumped a copious number of raindrops upon the assembled multitude, but eventually stopped. No one left. We endured the elements to hear this classic Band tune along with "The Shape Im In".
Michael McDonald is tinkling the ivories, everybodys in a race, trying not to be left behind.
It was pure joy, out in the audience tinkling our air pianos. Robbie Robertson may have retired, but that doesnt mean the music has to die. These songs can come alive, if someone just dedicates themselves, puts in the energy.
O.K., we all know the Band, but how many in the audience have even heard of Mink DeVille, never mind this nugget?
Actually, youd be surprised how many in the audience would know the now deceased king of cool. But I bet many in attendance thought this was a Boz Scaggs original, because he owned it.
REELIN IN THE YEARS
Michael McDonald is the prematurely grey, now white-haired singer of MOR songs that made the girls swoon.
All of that may be true, but hes also a MUSICIAN! He was a reluctant frontman. He started out as a sideman. Last night he played not only the keys, but the ukulele. He reminded you of that kid in high school, who lived to play music. He was never the singer, but every band you went to see, he was in. Sometimes playing lead, other times the bass, even the drums, adding perfect backup vocals.
Yes, Michael sang "What A Fool Believes". But I was even more thrilled that he did "I Keep Forgettin"
That came out just when Id broken up with my live-in girlfriend, I kept forgettin that we werent in love anymore, except that we were, we just couldnt live together, I listened to the tunes to get me through.
But the killer, the piece de resistance, was "Takin It To The Streets".
Michael had now been fully integrated into the Doobie Brothers. But this was a transitional album, "Minute By Minute" was still years away. But suddenly, this aged audience was on its feet, shaking its collective fist at a country that seems to have broken free of its grasp. Yes, as we seem to near the apocalypse, only music will keep us sane.
Boz seemed like he didnt want to be there, like he was punching the clock. John Herington was playing most of the leads. Boz wasnt shucking and jiving. But when he stepped up to the microphone, I swooned. That voice! Those notes he picked! Hes got style, hes got feel! Sure, he eventually played "Lowdown", he subtly stole the night, but what stunned me was Id given up on seeing him, Id been there and done that, this one appearance reinvigorated my interest in him.
And then we come to Donald Fagen.
He was having fun. He didnt say much, but when he did he questioned our sensibilities. He waited for silence, then turned to the audience and asked "Whats new?" As if he was an old college buddy and wanted to catch up. After we laughed, he said he heard it had been hot. Which elicited further laughter that only an Angeleno whos been in town this week can understand.
"I.G.Y" was a triumph. But "Reelin In The Years" made us smile, recalling who we once were, and who we now are.
But what impressed me most was Donalds elation. At one point he was pounding the keys and he had his feet in the air under the piano like a six year old. I know, Ive been there, Ive done that.
Thats whats great about music. When done right, you can throw off all convention, be the child basking in purity, having fun.
But it was the covers that made the night.
I bet almost no one in attendance owned an OJays album. But we all know "Love Train". Because back before every car had an FM radio, never mind an iPod input, we were exposed to all kinds of music on the AM dial that we came to love.
And to hear this powerhouse unit perform "Love Train" was to experience a cannonball express. A train asks no questions, it has no doubts, it pulls out of the station, gains momentum and just HUMS!
HELP ME RHONDA
There were music stands everywhere. After all, most of these tracks were not part of the performers usual repertoire.
But in an age where acts use teleprompters to sing THEIR OWN songs, Boz Scaggs strode up to the mic and sang "Help Me Rhonda" by heart.
Just like us.
It was not like seeing Mike Love or Brian Wilson. This was not nostalgia, this was like going to the high school dance, except the band was really damn good.
I found out about this tour from a reader. How fucked up is that?
Theres no Website, no big hype, its a secret. And thats a mistake.
This is the future. Unless youre planning to die young, you just cant repeat what youve done in your heyday forever, youve got to grow. Isnt that what Dylan taught us?
Michael McDonald can play to dwindling audience, same with Boz, Fagen can reunite with Walter Becker and overcharge to hear live renditions of some of the most exquisite recordings ever, but demand is not going to increase. Weve been there and done that, those of us who care anyway. But the Dukes Of September is something completely different! This is like Jimmy Buffett. Something to come back to every summer.
No one left early. Everybody had a good time. Based on my e-mail from others in attendance, everyone was lifted up, everyone felt theyd experienced something that normally eludes them, a celebration of the power of music, our music.
Every week they should release a live cover on iTunes. Not because the tracks would sell, but because the story would be big and it might reach the audience. The group should continue to work regularly, like the Allman Brothers, honing their chops, mesmerizing audiences to where they come back like sheep, like lemmings, where they dont think about it, they just go to the show.
It was impossible to be at the Greek last night and shrug your shoulders and be unimpressed. You nodded your head, you shook your booty, and eventually stood up and clapped and sang, you couldnt help yourself, the sound was just that powerful.
SOMETHING IN THE AIR
Call out the instigators
Because theres something in the air
Now most people know Thunderclap Newmans "Something In The Air" because of its inclusion in "Almost Famous", because of Tom Pettys cover. But once upon a time, in the spring of 1970, it was a record that got occasional play on FM radio. Very occasional. One listen was enough to hook you.
And on the very first weekend of my college career, on Saturday night they bused us all up to Middleburys Bread Loaf campus for a dance, where we could mix and mingle with the other freshmen.
How depressing. The music is blaring. You barely know anybody, youre desirous of knowing everybody, but you just cant achieve this.
There was a cover band from Boston. Going through the motions for an unappreciative audience.
Suddenly, they broke into "Something In The Air".
Literally seems like yesterday that I went up to the soundman and asked him who did the original. In the ensuing discussion he gave me the headphones, so I could hear the mix.
On the bus back I did my best to connect with a woman who I wasnt that interested in but who was even less interested in me.
And there you have my college career. Unsatisfying female encounters and a lot of music.
I bought Thunderclap Newmans "Hollywood Dream" on the first college break. I downloaded it from Napster. Its not famous because of its sales, but because of its music. And when the Dukes Of September broke into their rendition of "Something In The Air" I was completely surprised. Shouldnt they be doing something less obvious, that they can own? No! Because they werent interested in demonstrating how hip they were, but playing some of their absolute favorites, figuring they were some of our absolute favorites too.
Lock up the streets and houses
Because theres something in the air
Weve got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolutions here, and you know its right
And you know that its right
We stopped a war. They say music cant change the world? Theyre wrong.
But now we go to Vietnam as tourists. The war is a deep memory. But the music lives on.
We experienced a revolution. When the most important thing you could do, the most dangerous path you could follow, was to be a musician.
Players were not in bed with Fortune 500 companies, corporations couldnt take the risk. And first and foremost, the artists needed to be unfettered, they needed to do it their way. The record labels signed em and then got out of the way. And these acts were so good, we still want to see them decades on.
Its a symbiotic relationship. A star is nothing without his fans. And we fans need something to invest our hopes and dreams in.
Weve lived long enough to know our heroes are only human.
But somehow, the music is not. The music is godlike. Created in fits of passion, moments of genius, the music both embodies humanity and transcends it. Not made to be consumed and then disposed of, these great songs radiate forever. Michael, Boz and Donald created some of them. But, just like us, theyre fans of so many they didnt. Music is not a contest, the people creating competition TV shows, giving out awards, are not the players. Artists are brothers. In it together. They want to revel in the greatness of each others work. They want to live inside the music, they want that high only music can provide.
And so do we.
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