BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
(This review was originally posted at 2:42 a.m. May 20, 2018)
[I’m on with my rock ‘n’ roll pal Kaedy Kiely at 97.1 The River every Wednesday at 4:50 p.m. to talk about the latest music news. Tune in to hear what’s up!]
There is something comforting about the summer shed tour circuit.
Sure, you get some Kendricks and Wiz Khalifas, but music fans of a certain age wait to see which mix-and-match formula will be created each year among the ‘70s and ‘80s rockers – the Styxes and Poisons and Journeys and Chicagos.
A solid offering already is the week-ish-old co-headlining bill of Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers – a couple of veterans with meaty catalogs guaranteed to present a night of singalongs.
Perhaps that built-in reliability was the reason for Saturday’s sold out (save for a few spots on the grass where a few more people could have crammed in) Verizon Amphitheatre show.
Or maybe it was also a bit of curiosity as to how Donald Fagen and the ace Steely players would handle their first major outing since the September death of Walter Becker, the other grounding force in the band.
Regardless, there was little to quibble about after 3 ½-hours of hits and deep cuts from The Doobie Brothers (who played first) and Steely Dan, both offering fans a platter of finely honed nostalgia.
The frontline original Doobies – Patrick Simmons on a hot pink Fender guitar, Tom Johnston grinning and fist-thrusting like a young rock star and John McFee deftly moving from guitar to fiddle – were the obvious focal points.
But Marc Russo’s searing saxophone colored nearly every song and former Allman Brothers Band percussionist Marc Quiñones was a welcome sight who was kept busy on the layered “Jesus is Just Alright,” which also featured impeccable harmonies and some terrific gospel tones from keyboardist Bill Payne.
“Eyes of Silver” paid tribute to the Doobies’ funk side (yes, The Doobie Brothers have a funk side), while Simmons, in top gravel-voiced form, shared lead vocals with bassist John Cowan for a solid “Takin’ It to the Streets.”
Everyone’s favorite Time Life Collection inclusion, “The Doctor,” and the indelible guitar riff of its musical cousin, “China Grove,” were taut and punchy, giving the crowd ample reason to stand and play air guitar.
A highlight was a note-perfect “Black Water,” led by Simmons – who subbed “Georgia” and “Atlanta” for some of those “Mississippi moon” choruses and received the usual reaction when a crowd hears its current location mentioned – and filled in with sublime band harmonies.
The double punch closer of “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While),” handled vocally by Cowan and the jingle-jangle guitar favorite “Listen to the Music” left the crowd in a buzzy mood for Steely Dan, which took the stage after a reasonable 20-minute set change.
It only took Fagen a couple of songs to acknowledge what was surely on most fans’ minds – the absence of guitarist/bassist Becker.
“I’m sorry my partner couldn’t be here, but...,” he said, pausing for a second and sighing, “we’re gonna keep keepin’ on.”
In “keepin’ on” fashion, Fagen did his best to honor that partner with a set steeped in Steely history – the shrug of indifference in “Hey Nineteen,” the sumptuous jazz groove of “Black Cow,” the swing of “Black Friday,” the sonic beauty that is “Deacon Blues.”
Fagen and Becker, while never dynamic performers – that is, when they finally started touring regularly in the ‘90s – were, nonetheless, a pair. A partnership. A duo with a common sensibility at its core.
Fagen still doesn’t seem entirely comfortable having to “perform” but his is an endearingly cranky New Jersey-rooted persona in shades, loose-knotted tie and curled upper lip, his head tilting like Ray Charles as he sat behind his upright keyboard and sang with distinctive flair.
“You guys are f****** tremendous,” he praised the crowd after a lovely “Dirty Work” sung by backup vocalists La Tanya Hall and Carolyn Leonhart. “It makes it easy to play.”
A crackerjack four-piece brass section joined Fagen, the ladies and the Dan’s longtime quartet of backing players – keyboardist Jim Beard, bassist Freddie Washington and MVPs Jon Herington (guitar) and Keith Carlock (drums).
The stage was designed to focus on music, with colored lights against a solid backdrop the only visual - but that’s fitting for a band that loves to exhale onto a giant sonic palette.
A gentle bass line and guitar chug guided “Josie” – a rare play so far on this tour – while Carlock’s driving snare drum powered “Bodhisattva,” one of the quirkiest entries from a band that knows from weird.
“Keep That Same Old Feeling” strolled into Sunday brunch territory, while a blast of finesse from the horn section elevated “Deacon Blues.”
There is still plenty of lite-funk embedded in Fagen, as he demonstrated on “Peg” and the always-rousing “My Old School.”
And there is still plenty of power left in Steely Dan, despite the absence of one of its warped geniuses.