In the early ’90s, when Steely Dan were on hiatus, Donald Fagen rounded up some session musician pals (including Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs) to form the New York Rock and Roll Soul Revue. The band gave intimate performances featuring classic R&B tunes (Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” Etta James’ “At Last”) from the American songbook. Almost two decades later, Fagen has revived the group — this time calling it Dukes of September — for a tour, which started last week and wraps up October 2nd in Las Vegas. This year’s setlist includes covers of the Grateful Dead and the Band, plus classic Motown and Stax-era tracks. Rolling Stone caught up with Fagen on a tour stop in Washington D.C. to discuss performing with Levon Helm, plans for the next Steely Dan record, and the “ludicrous” names he suggested instead of Dukes of September.
What’s taken so long to revive this band?
Everybody’s been busy with their own stuff and their own careers. It just happened that this summer, Walter [Becker] and I were taking time off [from Steely Dan] and Boz and Mike were touring together and they just kind of folded me into it.
Why did you decide to rename it the Dukes of September?
Basically, my wife Libby [Titus] and I started the New York Rock and Roll Soul Revue because it was based out of New York. I think the second national tour that we did, Boz and Mike came on that one, and with this tour, since Boz and Mike are not particularly from New York, we decided it needed a new name.
What were some of the other names you kicked around?
We were sending back and forth a lot of, you know, ludicrous names. One of the ones I was popping was the Theme from Sea Hunt: Rhythm Revue. First of all, no one would remember this TV show Sea Hunt. But I figured the target audience would maybe remember and I thought we would at least play the theme as our first song or when we walked on stage. But you need to do the whole concept — or not at all. You gotta go all the way. Boz and Mike didn’t think it was such a good idea.
On the first few dates, you’ve been doing a pretty kick-ass version of the Grateful Dead’s “Shake Down Street.” Why’d you decide to cover that?
Well, I’d actually been singing that song when I was sitting with in Levon Helm at his Rambles [in Woodstock, New York] on Saturday nights.
What did you learn playing with Levon?
He’s such a great drummer — there’s not many drummers left. He has a very singular style. You know, modern drummers tend to rush. Well, that’s not the right word. They don’t lay back the way that drummers coming out of the swing era or early R&B… how they used to lay back. It’s this swingy backbeat drummers used to use. Chicago blues is the most laid-back drumming. You can read the paper while you’re waiting for the backbeat to come. Modern drumming is more pulled up, especially in the snare drum. Levon has a very eccentric style and it’s great because, while I was playing the piano, I’d be looking right at him, watching him sing and play at the same time. He’s hunched over the drums and singing and doing all those peculiar fills. I try to hang in there with him and keep the rhythm section going.
It’s interesting that you’re covering “Shakedown Street” with Dukes of September because that’s the Dead’s funkiest song, which makes sense coming from your work with Steely Dan.
It’s funny because some people think it sounds like a Steely Dan song. Maybe I was attracted to it because it has certain Steely Dan characteristics in it.
It has an interesting structure and chord progression. It has one chord which, you know, you usually wouldn’t hear in a Dead song. It definitely sounds like a stone jazz progression. It’s more poppy than a lot of their stuff. I have to say, though, it was the lyric, hearing it on the radio in the early ’80s or whatever, that really attracted me to the song.
Your live show includes a grab bag of tunes by the O’Jays, Little Anthony and the Imperials plus cuts from the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan catalog. How’d you figure out the setlist?
We started out with maybe over a 100 songs that each of us kicked in. There’s so much great material that it was hard to choose. I kept telling [Boz and Mike] to narrow it down so we could make some charts [for the band]. A lot of the music is complex — you need horn charts.
Is there a unifying theme to the songs you selected?
Well, the idea was to play music that we all liked when we were kids — music that made us want to become musicians in the first place. Each of us has pretty good taste in vintage R&B and soul music — we all grew up listening to black music, even myself, even though I was a jazz fan for my early teenage years. I guess people can see how that earlier music influenced what we do now in a way.
The show also features a cover of the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” Why’d you choose that one?
That’s the last tune in the regular show and it’s a fun one to play. I enjoy playing on Mike Boz tunes because you get a chance to be a sideman, which I used to do when I was younger. I became a singer [with Steely Dan] by accident — I was elected. What I enjoy most in music is being in a rhythm section and really synching in with a bass player and drummer and keeping things cooking. And Boz and Mike like the kinds of tunes that are real cookers.
Any plans to continue touring with the Dukes after these dates?
We’re gonna do some more Dukes dates in December. There’s been a lot of requests for these shows and now that people have seen them, we’re getting lots of requests to do more. It’s a real summer party kind of a show.
What’s Walter Becker doing during your time on the road?
We need a summer off, just to cool it for a summer. He was working on his own project and I had started one too, which I’m going to get to as soon as this is over.
Have you been working on a new Steely Dan record?
We’ve been talking about an idea for a couple years. You know, hopefully we’ll get around to it. We’ve never rushed. Were from the mid-’60s generation or something where you know — it’s not show business for us.
Then what is it?
I don’t know what it is. It’s just the way we do it. We wait for inspiration. It may be idealistic — nevertheless, it’s the way we’ve always done it. We never force it.