By Steve Morse
MANSFIELD, Mass. — Welcome to a concert that echoed a high school variety show, only on a much smoother, more elegant level. Welcome to the New York Rock & Soul Revue — a snappy traveling corps of musicians from Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, leavened with solo artists Boz Scaggs, Phoebe Snow and Chuck Jackson.
The media hoopla has gone to U2 and Bruce Springsteen this past week, but last night’s more quietly previewed show still brought a sellout crowd of 15,000 fans to Great Woods. It was just what many observers thought it might be — the sleeper show of the season. There was some filler to the program, but mostly it was a high-class night of summer nostalgia under the stars. It was smart marketing, too. None of the stars is known for dramatic stage charisma, but putting them together in a revue format brought out their best traits and minimized their worst.
Most fans came to hear the sleekly cerebral, urban sound of Steely Dan (a soft rock/classic hit radio staple), whose leading members, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, have been reunited on stage after two decades. They didn’t disappoint, either, easing through such Steely Dan FM radio favorites as “Josie,” “Pretzel Logic” and “Black Friday.” (Interesting that they avoided their big AM radio hits, such as “Reelin’ In the Years” and “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number,” preferring to give a more adult, blues-oriented show.)
As befitting their fussy studio image, the Steely Dan alumni kept a tight, meticulous rein on the arrangements last night, though they did unleash New York guitarist Drew Zingg for a metallic, bring-down-the-house solo on “My Old School.” But singer Fagen still sounded terrific, singing with a kind of coolly disembodied angst, while Becker proved an architect of intricate guitar leads and subtle, jazz-inflected rhythms.
Most of the show had a friendly, non-pressured tone that allowed the various acts to sing their favorite cover songs, as well their own hits. Sometimes, in fact, their hits got downplayed, as in the case of Boz Scaggs. He did his slinky R&B/pop hit “Lowdown,” but avoided his other hits in favor of doing an obscure early single (the forgettable “You’re Mine”), before tastefully covering Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman.”
Former Doobie Brother (and ex-Steely member) Michael McDonald followed Scaggs’ formula. He did one of his Doobies hits, the rolling “Minute by the Minute,” apart from cover songs, most notably a thrilling, falsetto-spiced “Lonely Teardrops” by Jackie Wilson.
Phoebe Snow did her one hit, “Poetry Man,” a honeyed jazz-folk love ballad. But Snow also had the most exciting moment last night with a wailing, blues-locomotive romp through Sam Cooke’s “Tossin’ and Turnin’.” She really turned the original version of the song around, showing that she still has the pipes to be heard a few counties away. (She also sang part of her designer coffee TV ad just in case people forgot her. “It’s a living,” she joked about the commercial plug.)
Soul singer Chuck Jackson gave an inconsistent performance, pleading in a contrived, show-bizzy, Vegas-like manner through “Any Day Now,” though he recouped with the smoldering come-on, “Beg Me,” a cross-harmony duet with backup singer Catherine Russell.
The New York Rock & Soul Revue band was top-notch throughout — a polished, 14-piece unit that soared with three horns and three backup singers, including Wellesley native Mindy Jostyn, who previously toured with Billy Joel. She added some tangy harmonica and violin as well, furthering the night’s easy going, variety show flair.