Thousands of “yacht rock” fans ventured out to Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio on a drizzly, humid Saturday (June 23) to revel in the guitar rock of The Doobie Brothers and smooth jazz-pop of Steely Dan.
“It’s a bad hair night!” mused Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.
“But we’re doing all right under the circumstances!”
Fagen wasn’t kidding: By the time he took the stage with his eight-man ensemble (at around 9:20 pm), the rain had stopped—and the Doobies had already thrilled the packed pavilion and loaded lawn audience with eighty minutes of magnificent throwback rock from the ‘70s.
1. The original Doobies are still dandy.
Still anchored by three key members, The Doobie Brothers (mostly) eschewed their Michael McDonald material (1977-1980) in deference to the early Seventies boogie-rock and acoustic-powered bluegrass hits written by mustached singer/ guitarist Tom Johnston and long-haired lead guitarist Pat Simmons.
The San Jose group greeted fans at the outdoor venue with “Natural Thing,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” and “Road Angel”—but it wasn’t until they tore into ultra-groovy Toulouse Street (1972) anthem “Jesus Is Just Alright” that the audience surrendered to the impulse to get up and dance.
“South City Midnight Lady” and “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” were cool cuts from 1973’s The Captain and Me that showcased the band’s knack for southern-fried guitar rock and swamp soul a la the Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Multi-instrumentalist John McFee (who replaced Jeff “Skunk” Baxter in 1979) decorated the ditties with feisty fiddle, eloquent ETS pedal steel strains, and crisp licks on his Variax electric guitar while Simmons strummed a hot pink Strat and Johnston plucked his Les Pauls.
2. The other “brothers” are brilliant, too.
Mark Russo’s sizzling saxophone solos complemented the band’s brusque guitar work, and Bill Payne (Little Feat) provided smooth keys and honky-tonk piano on a pair of Korg Kronos. Floppy-haired bassist John Cowan (on five-string Sadowsky) locked in with drummer Ed Toth on “World Gone Crazy” and “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While),” whereon Cowan commanded lead vocals.
Payne prefaced toe-tapping tough-guy tune “Takin’ It to the Streets” with some gospel organ flourishes. Latter-day Doobie entry “The Doctor” (from 1989’s Cycles) was likewise bright and brisk, while beloved unplugged oldie “Black Water” shimmered with rustic arpeggios (courtesy Simmons’ acoustic guitar) and melancholy fiddle (McFee).
“Ohio moon won’t cha keep on shining on me!” sang Simmons, personalizing the lyric for listeners.
3. The Doobies’ finale is fantastic.
Johnston and Simmons brought muscle and momentum to “Long Train (Without Love)” and perennial radio staple “China Grove,” by which point the near-capacity crowd was up and singing along. Toth maintained the pace as percussionist Marc Quinones (Allman Brothers, James Taylor) slapped his palms atop a pair of Pearl congas. Not surprisingly, the septet wrapped up by regaling the audience with timeless Toulouse hit “Listen to the Music.”
Tell us again why these guys aren’t ensconced in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…but NWA, Public Enemy, Green Day, and Madonna are?
4. Donald Fagen / Steely Dan still dazzles after 45 years of Pretzel Logic.
Like his Doobie pals, Donald Fagen played the Hard Rock in Northfield, Ohio just last fall. But that show (which featured his Nightflyers band) highlighted Steely Dan classics and nuggets from Fagen’s sensational solo efforts (The Nightfly, Kamakiriad, Morph the Cat, Sunken Condos).
This time out it was all Steely stuff, performed perfectly by Fagan (on Fender Rhodes electric piano) and his team of talented virtuoso instrumentalists and backup singers.
The only thing missing, really, was band co-founder/guitarist Walter Becker, who passed away in 2013. Becker’s guitar licks were handled magnificently at Blossom by Jon Herington (Boz Scaggs, Bette Midler), who’s been touring on-off with Steely Dan since 1999.
Fagen—in shades and white dinner jacket—helped Buckeye State Steely aficionados get their smooth jazz fix with kinetic canters through memorable offerings from Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976) and Aja (1977) such as “Black Cow,” “Kid Charlemagne,” “Green Earrings,” and “Black Friday.” The waves of nostalgia were irrepressible, but the music still felt as potent, present, and “now” as ever.
Fagen may be in his 70s, but the New Jersey native (and 2001 Rock Hall inductee) still has plenty of chops. His voice was in fantastic form on “Hey Nineteen,” “FM (No Static at All),” and Gaucho (1980) oldie but goody “Time Out of Mind.” The guy gave no hint that he’s running short on lung-power these days: He projected marvelously throughout the set, pushing his swivel-stand microphone away whenever it was time to dabble on keys.
Then Fagen would pull the mic back and continue singing.
“Yeah, baby!” he gushed every other tune. Sometimes he’d dab perspiration off his brow with a towel, then toss said rag aside and get on with the next selection.
5. Fagen’s supporting cast is comprised of amazing musicians.
Joining Fagen on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Peg,” “Dirty Work,” and “Josie” was bass hero Freddie Washington (Phil Collins, Lionel Richie), who sat just beneath drummer Keith Carlock’s Gretsch kit. The percussionist—who has worked with Toto, Sting, and James Taylor—was fast, fluid, and frenetic, drawing cheers with his stick work.
Jim Beard contributed additional keyboards, his rig parked under a platform occupied by Fagen’s phenomenal horn section (sax, trumpet, trombone). Background vocalists LaTanya Hill and Carolyn Leonhart lent gusto and grace to numbers like “My Old School”, too, swaying and shimmying to the rhythms.
Fagen’s often (erroneously) portrayed as a highbrow curmudgeon in the press. Sure, his verses are bookish and cerebral and his chord charts quixotic, but he came off downright jovial during this wingding, head swaying like Ray Charles to Washington’s weaving bass and Beard’s busy keys.
Herington heated up again the guitar-laden encore, starting with the buoyant “Bodhisattva” (from 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy). Finale “Reeling in the Years” had everyone shuffling in the aisles, shaking out on the damp, grassy hill, and “stowin’ away the time” spent with Fagen into their mental scrapbooks.