2012 - Teleconference Interview

Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs discuss Dukes of September Rhythm Revue collaborations, set lists ahead of Musikfest performance

Posted by John J. Moser at 01:48:00 AM on August 8, 2012

When Steely Dan singer Donald Fagen teamed up with 1970s soft rocker Michael McDonald and ’70s blues rocker Boz Scaggs to form the surprise super group Dukes of September Rhythm Revue for a summer 2010 tour, part of the trio’s initial set list was pretty obvious — hits from each member’s career.

But by the end of the tour, half of The Dukes’ set was made up of a broad range of cover tunes as diverse as The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda,” The Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” and a trio of songs by The Band.

When the Dukes decided to reunite for a second round of dates this summer, McDonald and Scaggs say they realized that they could take the show even further, including deeper cuts from the three and a more challenging range of covers.

So when the Dukes headline Musikfest’s Steel Stage on Wednesday, yes, you can expect to hear McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’,” Scaggs’ “Lowdown” and Steely Dan’s “Peg” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” But you’re also likely to hear songs such as “Pretzel Logic” from Steely Dan’s 1974 album of the same name, Scaggs’ 1980 minor hit “Miss Sun” and Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes.”

In a recent telephone news conference, McDonald and Scaggs spoke about how they chose their set list, and whether they’ll ever record together.

Here’s an edited transcript of the call:

This is the second time you've done this with the three of you. What did you learn from the last time that may change the show or affect the way you'll be doing it this time?

Michael McDonald: “Go ahead, Boz.”

Boz Scaggs: “OK. I don't that we really learned a whole lot. I think in most -- material wise -- most everything we were doing felt good. It's kind of all over the map as is the tour we're doing -- new set list, the arrangements. It just seems that we can work a little farther afield. Everything works. And it sort of gives you a sense of a little more freedom knowing that - it feels good.

“The band is clicking. And, you know, looking forward to trying some new material. But I wouldn't say that there's anything we particularly learned. We just got more familiar playing with each other. And Mike and I had a chance to get to know the band better.

“It's Donald's band - Steely Dan band. So he was used to working with them. But Mike and I got a good chance to fit in. And I think what we gained from it was a sense of confidence that we can kind of go where we want to go with these guys. It's like a Ferrari.”

Michael McDonald: “Yes, I agree with Boz on that. I think if we learned anything it's really only that maybe this time we can push the envelope a little bit more with some of the material. In the first round, I think with this tour, we were wondering how obscure we could get with some of the material. We did everything from Grateful Dead to Beach Boys to the Band. You know, a lot of old soul tunes and things.

“Some of the material we did, for me a song I hadn't heard since I was 14 years old was one of the songs we did. And so, the material’s that obscure in some areas of the show.

“Now, we do our originals too, to bring that to the table. But it's kind of self-indulgent. But I think it's self-indulgent for the audience, too, in a way, because it's not too many shows where you're going to see this much material that is kind of old and obscure. But our aim, I think. is always to pick those songs that when you hear, they're the songs that people go, ‘Oh, man, I haven't heard that in years.’ But they remember the song.

“And that's the kind of target we shoot for with each song. And hopefully we'll probably just delve into that area a little more with this tour. But it's been a lot of fun to do it. And as Boz said, for us it's a lot of fun. And I think that kind of translates for the audience too.”

You mentioned having done the Band songs this last time through. Are you still planning to do that now because it'll have - it'll certainly have a more poignant meaning?

Michael McDonald: “Yes, it would. I'm not sure, to be honest with you. We're, as we speak, putting the list together even still. Until we hit rehearsal we're not really sure what's going to stay or not. So there are a lot of alternative songs. And I had wondered that myself. And I'm sure Boz did too. But I don't think we really know until we get into rehearsals with Donald and kind of see what his thoughts are on that, you know?”

Michael, you touched on this about the songs are in the process of being put together. But if you and Boz would both talk about the process of choosing the set list. Do you each come in with songs you want to sing? The ones that it covers - talk a little bit about putting a set list together.

Michael McDonald: “Well, that's pretty much it. You know, we communicate usually by email in the beginning. And we just kind of throw songs into the hat -- the three of us. And try to figure out - just anything that we think might work. And with the idea that it will all get boiled down to a two-hour show. And so we go through songs that would probably be more like a four-hour show until we kind of boil it all down.

“It's a great chance for us to kind of just sit and fantasize any songs we would like to do. And then I guess we kind of leave a bit up to Donald to kind of decipher through that as the MD. And kind of put a phantom list together. And then he sends those to us and we kind of look at them and make our comments.

Boz, you have something to add to that?

Boz Scaggs: “Yes, I'd say that we try to balance it out. Mike had mentioned earlier we do each our own songs. And then I'm always looking for something I can sing with Donald or with Michael. Songs that we can duet on or even better songs that we all three sing on. Each taking verses and, you know, choruses and I think that's kind of one of the aims.

“We share a unique -- or let's say a common -- thread of music. R&B is I'd say where we all land among our other interests. That's our real common interest. So a lot of that material lends itself to different treatments. So we aim to balance it out so that we get to sing with each other. I'm always looking for those collaborative things. And, yes, it's just evolving now. We start rehearsals in a week in New York. So there's a little flurry of activity right now trying to nail songs. And it's kind of the exciting time right now when the material - we can solidify what the band is putting together.

“Donald and the musicians are doing some arrangements and I can't wait to see what comes out.”

You did those teleconferences a couple of years ago for the first tour. And one of the things that you kind of touched on it there in talking about the R&B being a common thread between the three of you. And you talked a lot about that and the camaraderie the three of you have. But I realized no one really asked about just what it is you think each of the three of you bring to the stage during this show that kind of is a little bit different from the other. You know, I'm just kind of curious how you think the three of you make up sort of a different flow to the show.

Boz Scaggs: “You want me to start, Mike, or...”

Michael McDonald: “Go ahead, Boz, go ahead.”

Boz Scaggs: “Well, let's just start by saying there are - I mean I could go on about Mike or Donald. And I think it probably somewhat speaks for itself. I mean Donald has got great arrangement skills and a unique voice. And a particular slant on life, on music, and particularly on the kind of material we're doing here. Michael's unique voice and arrangement, you know, we're all pretty different. I don't know - I'm the token Okie, so I don't know exactly what I'm doing in the mix. But I can certainly point to a number of characteristics of Donald and Michael.

“And the key is I think that the sort of synthesis of what happens when we do it together. We get to play. I mean Donald solos on a number of things. We pitch our own personalities and styles into each other. So I think that's what it really should be about to a great extent. Whatever I do is going to be influenced by whoever's playing on that song. And Donald's out front, Mike's out front, I'm out front. We get to solo. We get to duet with each other. And I think it's those kind of twists that come about that sort of make it interesting for us.

Michael McDonald: “Yes, I agree with that. I think the point that Boz makes about it, it's not really so much for us or what we do individually. Because what we do separately with our own bands is probably so much different than what we do with the three of us on stage, as much as it is about what we do in combination with each other. And there are different areas of expertise I think that when ((inaudible)) I mean, I don't know what mine would be either, and I hope Boz knows that.

“I guess in a pop/R&B…I can cover some of that stuff. And I think Boz brings more a traditional blues and kind of a deeper R&B knowledge too, with his guitar playing and songs that he chooses to do. And Donald, of course, has the kind of arrangement and jazz background that really brings an interesting flavor to a lot of the arrangements. Even the blues stuff is different than we would do it otherwise because of some of the arrangements Donald comes up with, especially in the horn section and stuff like that.

“So it's really more about what happens when we three get together. It's different for all of us than what we even do normally on our own. In fact I thought about many times how much fun this has been because it is so much different than what I would do. It's even different than what Boz and I have done when we go out and play. We've been around the globe in the last two years together just touring together, most recently with one band. But we do more two separate shows and we do get together and do like a third act. But it's uncanny how different that show is even then just by adding the element of Donald into it. And the three of us it just becomes a whole other thing.

You get a lot of difference just in the performing styles of the three of you?

Michael McDonald: “Well, there is until we kind of come into this configuration with this band too. One of the most fun things about this tour for us is we get to play a lot of these old songs that we love with one of the best bands we could ever hope to put together. And that's kind of a dream come true for all of the three of us.”

I wonder what are the particular challenges you face with this tour as opposed to when you tour with your regular band?

Michael McDonald: “Go ahead, Boz, you...”

Boz Scaggs: “Hmm, the challenges - well, the challenges I think are - well, I don't get to play in this context. Well, gosh, that's obvious, isn't it? The challenge is working with material that's well outside my realm, and I would say that's probably the challenge with everybody. In that regard, I get to play a guitar style that I wouldn't get to play otherwise. The setting is just different and unique. This band has a style. And the variety of the material means that I'm stepping into roles that I would never step into in any other musical context. I'm singing lead songs on songs like the last time we did “Love Train.” We did a medley of Band songs.

"I would've been doing songs that Levon Helm did or we're doing Beach Boys songs. So we're getting to use our voices and our chops in ways that would never present themselves. And it is very challenging. You'll hear some vocal work by Michael and with the background vocals. Michael does some duets - well, each of us do. So it's just a challenge of doing a variety of material and stepping in as musicians on it too. You'll hear some of the best playing out of Donald, for instance, than you have ever heard out of him. Last time he played acoustic piano and some melodica. And he solos long on the melodica. He solos on piano.

“He does styles that he doesn't do in any other context. He's a wonderful blues pianist. It sort of brings out sides of us that you'll probably not hear - and probably haven't heard before and won't hear again in each of our styles. So, challenge yes but it's the great joy of doing it.”

Michael McDonald: “Yes, I would agree with that. I think we're out of our comfort zones in ways. And learning a lot of material, and I know I speak for Boz and Donald. We've been spending a lot of years playing our own material. And for the most part, you may bring a song out of obscurity but it's at least something you've done before. And in this realm, we're playing songs that we've never done before or we haven't done since we were kids. And it's kind of terrifying at first, but it's a lot of fun in the end. It does a lot for I think the three of our spirits just as musicians and getting a chance to do this. It's really a kind of rejuvenating experience I think.”

I guess what I'm wondering - still thinking about the set list and the material you're working on. How much do you feel the pull of the audience when you're putting that together? Because, obviously, this is something you guys love. And it's songs you love. You sort of trust that audience is going to be there with you? Or are you thinking a little bit, well maybe we need to pull out, you know, go a little less obscure in this direction or a little more pop in that direction? You ever feel like that - in other words - do you feel like you have to play certain songs?

Michael McDonald: “Right, well, Boz go ahead, what do you...”

Boz Scaggs: “Well, that's - I think you hit one of the aspects on the head. Is this too obscure? Or do we have to do this? There are definitely songs that come on the list that seem too obscure. We might jump on it but, you know, a week later we might say, I think one of the objectives is to - Mike touched on it earlier. Just to choose material that the audience has perhaps heard. And I think the best reaction that we feel for our audience would be they've heard. But they're going to hear it again in the context that we give it. A twist in the arrangement, certainly a twist in the vocal delivery by Donald or Mike or myself. But the list can go pretty deep into stuff. And it can be pretty funny sometimes where this might go if we let ourselves run completely free with it.

“On the other hand, the challenge is to keep the material as dynamic as we can. We're very careful to choose material - when we're looking at material - that has been done by others. We have to bring our unique stamp to whatever we do. We have to own the song. So it's not enough to perform a - let's say a Motown or a Stax or a Philly International song which everybody's heard. We have to be damn clear that this has got our stamp on it. So there's criteria. Anything goes in a way, but, yes, there's criteria.”

Michael McDonald: “ Yes, I would agree with that. And I think too there's that feeling that we all get when you’re driving down the road and you hear a song come on the radio that isn't a song that you've heard a lot. Saturday night, it's a classic radio station. But that one that you know, and you remember it, but you haven't heard it a while and you kind go, wow. You're kind of coupled with that feeling of reminiscing hearing the song and surprised that anybody else remembered it. And I think that's kind of one of the targets we shoot for. But there's always that consideration of what's going to really please the audience in the end. And like Boz said, we dove pretty deep with obscure stuff. And then we try to offset it with things that - for instance - may be really recognizable but we'll choose to do a certain version of it. For instance, we'll talk about doing Grapevine but possibly doing the Gladys Knight version because everybody does the Marvin Gaye version. And having one of the girls come out and sing it. And I think that's going to really be kind of fun for the audience, to hear that version live. Because, like I say most people kind of do the Marvin Gaye version. That's where the song leapt off in people's minds. But the other version is fantastic and that's really the first version we all heard.

“There's always kind of opportunities for us to kind of tweak things a certain way. And, again, with this band it's kind of a dream come true to be able to do any of these songs with a band that great.”

Are there any particular ones that you can think of right off the top of your head that you just threw out and thought, god, I'd really love to do that song but it's just not going to work?

Boz Scaggs: “Well...”

Michael McDonald: “I don't think so, like, a really difficult kind of arrangement or just something like that or...go ahead, Boz.”

Boz Scaggs: “I don't think that's ever really hit. I mean we cook it through pretty carefully. But if it's going to get a treatment, it's something that we feel pretty good about. I don't ever think that there's anything that hasn't worked.

Michael McDonald: “We haven't...”

Boz Scaggs: “We haven't...”

Michael McDonald: “Yes, we've changed some things out but not because it didn't work necessarily just because we found something better or something.”

Boz Scaggs: “Right, right.”

One quick last one, any thoughts to record?

Boz Scaggs: “You know, it's never been discussed. I mean I think it's been an obvious question. It's been an obvious choice. My personal feeling - I don't know - I would imagine Mike and Donald share to some degree that once you start recording, it's like when you go do a video, you're doing a TV show. Once the cameras go on, the red light goes on, it complicates things. It's not doing it for the original reason, at least for me. I'm of a generation that we do what we do. You want to do it from the heart. You don't want to feel self-conscious about it. You want to just give it all you've got and do it live. And feel good and then, you know, you can hit some highs in that context. It's not the same with recording. The purpose of this exercise was not to record, which is not to say that after you've done 20 or 30 cities that you're hitting on some stuff that is very much its own. And it could very well happen. But we don't run tape. We don't do this for the purpose of recording or taking it any further than doing what we're doing right then and there that night.”

Michael McDonald: “Yes, I agree with that. I think that at the very heart of this thing, it's a live show. That just kind wants to be that and maybe nothing more. But we just really haven't broached the subject strangely enough, in the last couple of years we've done.

I know that you and Donald, of course, go back to the early 70s together. Boz - what was your introduction to performing and collaborating with Donald Fagen? Was it the 2010 tour or is your history go back before that?

Boz Scaggs: “I guess it was about ‘92 or ‘93 - Donald and his wife Libby had put together a series of shows back in New York called the New York Rock and Soul Review. … I sat in a few times and then the show went on the road. We toured for a number of dates back East. And so that was the first time we shared some material. It was Donald and Libby's deal. And then yes, that was our first time together. That's starting to come back.”

Do each of you have a song in your back pocket that you're thinking about that either you think is going to blow the other guy's minds or that is going blow the audience's mind?

Michael McDonald: “Well, I - go ahead Boz.”

Boz Scaggs: “Well, it's been a pretty long process that we go through in trying to find the material that's going to pop. And it'll just be, you know, just right. Other things will take more work. And they're going to find their way too. But I can't say I've got anything that I think is going to blow anybody away. But I think we're going to hit the mark on any number of these. And we got some - it's a longer list than we'll do. So, no surprises to us - something's going to pop.”

Michael McDonald: “I agree. I think from the get go we start with eliminating the songs that aren't going to keep the show up in energy level and stuff. And if there's a couple of mid-tempo things we really are careful to find a spot for those where they don't really slow the show down from an energy level. But I think the whole idea from the get go is to pick things that are kind of - so many of the songs in the first list are fun and great songs that we all love. But what separates the men from the boys song-wise is the ones that we know you can imagine the audience is going to have a certain energy level.”

You guys mentioned, obviously, about these songs have sentimental, nostalgic value. And I think Michael's the one who mentioned that feeling of driving down the road and hearing the song that you hadn't heard in a while. Just if you could say, first whether just kind of how you see songs and revisiting them has made you guys feel and recalling some of that nostalgia feeling you mentioned.

And also if there were any songs that kind of had that moment that Michael mentioned that you hadn't thought about in a long time but then when it came into your mind you're like, wow, that's a great song. We should bring that out.

Michael McDonald: “Go ahead, Boz, if you want to.”

Boz Scaggs: “Yes, I've learned to sort of fight the impulse to some degree because there are probably quite a few songs - there are a lot more songs on our joy list than would be practical. Yes, I don't know. Mike, can you pick it up. I don't know the thread.

Michael McDonald: “Yes, well I agree with that. The hardest task overall is paring it down. Because we just - we throw a hundred songs in there probably by the time we get done talking. And like I said, we kind of look to Donald to pare it down for us to a certain degree and then we talk about that. If there's one that one of us really wants to keep in there, at least until the elimination is over, we'll mention it. But yes, for me it's been a strange experience both these last two tours with the Dukes is there's -this tour and last tour - there's a song that I literally hadn't sung since I was 14, you know.

“And in both cases those are the kind of obscure songs that I thought I'll probably never do that song again live. So it's interesting to be all of a sudden in a situation, out playing these kind of venues and doing those particular songs. I find that really interesting. And it's probably the same for Boz, there's things that we get a chance to do that we really haven't done in a long time or probably ever thought we'd do again, at some summer shed venue in front of a lot of people. And especially with a band this great, so that's a lot of fun for us. But there's so many of them, like Boz said, that it's really a big exercise in letting go. And keeping your eye on the fact that we've got two hours here and what's really going to be the best show?

“It's not so much a sentimental exercise as it's kind of just throwing them against the wall and seeing what boils down to the best show we can come up with. But oddly enough, even still having said that, for me I know it's been one of those experiences where you're doing a couple of songs that you just go, man, I never dreamed I'd be on stage doing this song again after all these years. As much as I recall it and I remember it and I love it - especially with Boz Skaggs and Donald Fagen. It's kind of wacky, but it's a lot of fun for that reason too.”

Cool, if you might - do you remember the song that you said you just hadn't sung since you were 14?

Michael McDonald: “Well, the last tour...”

Boz Scaggs: “Don't give it away.”

Michael McDonald: “No, no, I'm going to reserve the one for this tour but last year we did a song – a Fontella Bass song called ‘Mess Up a Good Thing.’ And I used to sing that with a girl I was in a band with when I was 14 and she was 16. And it's just one of those songs you go, man, you know, that was a great song. And you might even talk about it over the years but you could never foresee an opportunity to actually do the song again for any particular reason. But, you know, stranger things happen.

In listening to the answers that you've given to a lot of the other questions, my original question's going to center more on Boz your last album being very acoustic jazz oriented as opposed to a kind of R&B review and whether that was difficult. But everything that both of you have said it makes it sound like it's kind of freeing - would you say that's the case?

Boz Scaggs: “That, by all means, yes. It is to me, yes. I think by the same token that the three of us have landed in this kind of pop and R&B vein. We all came up I'd say - I can speak for my cohorts, the music that evolved that effected the music that we're reflecting now, certainly, the standards, the great American song book. And the music that originated in New Orleans and in the Delta and came up the river and gained a little sophistication and style along the way. And Donald is a studied, trained musician. And brings a lot of that to Steely Dan and the fantastic book that he's written. Michael and I certainly trained ourselves vocally. I think we could safely say followed our interests. And when you're talking about Ray Charles or Joe Simon or any number of stylists that we're working through they came by way of Louie Jordan and Nat Cole and all of the forbearers.

“So they go back and to go into that domain particularly from its song writing aspect is just a whole new dimension and a new challenge. And I'm certainly not alone in those of my generation and before and after me who explore that. And jazz is necessarily linked into that exploration.”

I'm wondering if spending all this time together as the Dukes a couple of summers ago, Boz and Michael together. Will this whet the appetite for you guys to work together in the studio? To write together and maybe - maybe record new music together?

Boz Scaggs: “Mike?”

Michael McDonald: “Well, I for one am always up for that opportunity. I think what tends to happen is, we all kind of work in different directions and come together in a situation like this. And then, it's kind of like staying in touch with old friends. You'd love to do a lot of that but then, you have trouble keeping up with each other, outside of the one thing you're focused on at the time. But, yes, I mean I think that would be fun. I think what competes with that is our own individual interests in exploring something new from our own tastes and standpoint and recording.

“It's funny, with this tour - Boz had mentioned earlier that it's something that I think we're subconsciously preserving as it is, as a live show. It's like, somebody asked us if we would record it. And it's something we've been reluctant to even address because I think it in some ways we all three kind of feel like that would be a diversion from what it is, at its best. And what it is at its best is - it's a great live show with a lot of material that you may not even hear live again. So when we get away from each other, say in this situation, it's like we're kind of off into our own worlds of recording and looking to do one of those million and one things we've promised ourselves we'd get around to.

“It's kind of a lot of catch-up, especially in the musical area of our private lives where we're trying to get back to those things that we thought about trying and we just never had the time to do.”

Boz Scaggs: “Yes, I would very much agree with Mike. He nailed it. I mean there's so much to do. This is like a holiday. This is like if you work for a lifetime and you get to have a career that each of us have had, which has been long. And if it can safely be said that we're all going to continue to do, probably until the day we die, what we do now - this is an interlude that is extremely special for each of us. It's almost a burden and a challenge that comes with not only our own work ,but when you got into collaborative mode with somebody - it's tough. It's tough for me. Donald has his writing partner Walter Becker, which is one of the great collaborations of our generation. And Michael has forged his own - he's co-written with his bands and with other people. I have a few.

“But that's really not what the Dukes of September is about for me. And I don't think it is for either of them. That said, if I were looking for some changes - some musical changes - I've seen the area where Mike comes out of a R&B and a gospel background and puts together those kinds of chords like nobody else. Donald comes from another field and which is very, very rich. And I would certainly know where to go and feel I'm close enough to these two guys that I would go and look for those areas if I wanted to explore. That could happen sometime. But right now this is like - this is a freebie. This is where we get to go out and play each others’ side man. Get to go sit back and play our instrument and let somebody else take the lead.

“And then we get to take our own little joy spot every once in a while. This is primarily what this band is about. As we grow, and I'm sure by the end of this 40 cities we're going to know each other better, who knows what could come out of it. But primarily this is the joy moment. This is the chance to just be. Go out and have a ball.”

Do each of you have a next thing you're going to work on? You know, a recording project or something that will follow this or that's in process now?

Michael McDonald: “Go ahead, Boz.”

Boz Scaggs: “ Yes, I'm working on an album. I'm writing it. Assembling it. I'll go into the studio in September and I hope to be out and have something new for the spring. I have a live project in the works as well that doesn't involve my work but a tribute to another musician - a Texas musician Doug Sahm. Many people do know and many people don't. But I'm going to spend some time with Doug's style and some of his music and produce a live show. There's a lot of music in the works right now for me.”


Michael McDonald: “Yes, I'm doing a project right now with Robben Ford that we're both starting to think will maybe last another 20 years if we're not careful. But it's fun and it's been something different. I've been a big fan of Robben and Boz knows Robben. And aside from that I'm doing a project with my son, Dylan, which really started off as a lark. We were just kind of doing kind of a little charity project. But we started picking songs for each other. And kind of joking around, he picked a Radiohead song for me. And I picked something equally as ridiculous for him which - by the way I love the Radiohead song. It actually turned out to be kind of fun.

“And we started to see that maybe this is the whole concept for the record - father and son who normally can't even get along in the studio picking songs for each other. That's got to be hilarious, you know? So we've been kind of following that muse. And we've come up with a record that we're just going to probably - I don't know what we're going to do with it to be honest with you. But we'll probably make it available like over iTunes and stuff like that at some point on our little family label. But it's been great fun. It's been a chance for me and him to actually make some music together in the studio without killing each other.”

OK, Boz is your album going to be - the studio you mentioned is that original material?

Boz Scaggs: “About half written - half original and half stuff. Some new material but not stuff that I have written.”

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