19 November 2009

The Live Vault: Steely Dan


13 November 2009
Riverside Theater, Milwaukee

[Note to our readers: On occasion, our far flung correspondents review concerts. Here's another one.]

Since their reformation under the name Steely Dan in 1993, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have had a modest career renaissance in the rock world. The Dan, notorious for its aversion to touring, finally returned after a long hiatus to the road that year and have been mainstays on the arena circuit since then. In addition, the band produced the multiple Grammy winning Two Against Nature (2000) and Everything Must Go (2003). In between, they were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The latest fad on the economy challenged concert trail is to play "classic" albums from beginning to end. On its "Rent Party '09 Tour" Steely Dan has been playing multiple nights in separate U.S. cities, spotlighting three records consecutively released by Becker and Fagen from 1976 through 1979: The Royal Scam; its biggest seller, Aja; and Gaucho.

After a brief introductory interlude by the four piece horn section, drummer, guitarist, bass player, keyboardist and three female background singers, the famous cover of Aja was produced, its LP removed and plopped on an old turntable. And to the familiar bass line of "Black Cow," out strode Becker with his custom electric guitar and Fagen parking himself behind his Fender Rhodes. And so the high wire act began for these two: performing one of the most meticulously produced albums live, with the challenge of replicating enough of the familiar sounds while not sounding rote. To ardent followers of Becker and Fagen, the superior musicianship of the players on the stage was immediately evident. The twist on the first tune turns out to be a baritone, rather than soprano, sax solo. But "Black Cow" still hits you right between the eyes with it smooth groove just as it did so many years ago as the opening salvo of the LP.

The title track follows, and it is a tour de force for the free form guitars of Becker and John Harrington. The famous sax solo is decidedly different, with good reason. Aja featured the incomparable Wayne Shorter, at the height of his Weather Report days. Here, the soprano player politely nods to the Shorter sound, then wisely takes his own route. But it is the drumming of Keith Carlyle at the tail end of the tune that lathers up the crowd.

"Deacon Blues" is then tackled - out of LP sequence - and Fagen, in good voice, plays slightly with the phrasing of the lyrics, to fine effect. By now it is clear that the game plan is to put personal stamps on solos with respectful nods to the originals.

The musicianship on "Peg" is once again top-notch: the ripping guitar solo of Harrington, the brass subbing on the bottom for the album's keyboard. But the female chorus cannot make up for the male refrain made famous by Michael McDonald. It makes us wish we had attended the last tour when McDonald opened for and then joined The Dan on stage for the numbers he has lent his voice to.

Fagen then fires up an extended coda on the Rhodes which leads into "Home At Last," the Odyssey tale of Becker/Fagen's transfer from New York to Los Angeles. While it is played a half-step slower, allowing the lead vocal a more conversational tone to the lyrics, it maintains the "Purdie Shuffle" beat. Becker finally comes out of the shadows and plays his familiar, crystal clean notes. A muted trumpet replaces the melodica. (We see the unique instrument sitting on top of Fagen's keyboard; when will it make its initial appearance?)

"I Got The News," a jaunty cut from Aja which should set the house on fire, wilts. Fagen, who has never been known for his strong voice, struggles with the higher register needed to deliver the song.

The closing track of the album tribute is the FM staple "Josie." The funky shuffle shows Becker at his most engaged since the beginning of the concert, his guitar turned way up in the mix. And as the song reaches its climax, Fagen leaps up from his piano bench, arms raised in a mad jazz professor pose towards his band mates, urging them on to the close.

In addition to the ever-present sunglasses (and the Ray Charles-like swaying at the keyboard), Fagen reveals in the now brighter spotlight his gold/silver lame shoes. He seems to sense some relief on behalf of all his fellow musicians with the conclusion of Aja. And he tells the sold-out crowd: "We've got some time to fill." He grabs the Yamaha harmonium and starts to scat. Suddenly, the familiar melody of "Time Out Of Mind" is heard and the tight rhythm section of Carlyle and bassist Freddie Washington allows Becker and Fagen to play off against each other for the first time of the night.

The rumbling intro of "Black Friday" comes next. Blues and gospel organ riffs effectively reflect the apocalyptic mood of the lyrics. And suddenly you wish the whole of Katy Lied was on the playlist tonight, too.

While there seems to be two throwaways in the mix tonight ("Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More" and "Godwhacker"), all is forgiven with the back-to-back selections of "Babylon Sisters" and "Hey Nineteen." At his present age, Fagen can play the satyr even more effectively while the background singers "shake it."

Fagen departs the stage. Becker introduces the band and the females take the lead on "Dirty Work" and a fine cover of The Supremes "Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart."

The concert reaches fever pitch in Steely Dan's closing numbers by pulling out its ace musical card: John Harrington on lead. Fagen has returned with a new sense of vocal purpose, shining on "Don't Take Me Alive." Harrington plays the guitar lines true to this hard rocking gem from The Royal Scam. The ante is upped on the R&B rich "Show Biz Kids," The Dan's wonderful take on the dichotomy of economic strata that still rings true in today's society. Fagen and the choir sing the famous refrain twice to make sure the absurdity of the celebrity world is evident: Show business kids/Making movies of themselves/You know they don't give a ****/About anybody else. The crew kills "My Old School" and a wonderful "Kid Charlemagne" completes the set, carrying a slight, funky reggae beat underneath Harrington's lively guitar - he wisely stays away from the famous Larry Carlton solo and blazes his own trail here. [Ed. note: Watch Harrington put his stamp on "Kid Charlemagne" here.]

Returning to a thundering ovation, the obligatory "Reelin' In The Years" serves as the encore: "the original version," as Fagen puts it. And Harrington carries the mail one last time, a guitar slinger ready to draw with the best of 'em in the town square.

"Black Cow"
"Deacon Blues"
"Home At Last"
"I Got The News"
"Time Out Of Mind"
"Black Friday"
"Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More" (Becker on lead)
"Babylon Sisters"
"Hey Nineteen"
"Show Biz Kids"
"Dirty Work" (Choir on lead)
"Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart" (Supremes cover) (Choir on lead)
"Don't Take Me Alive"
"My Old School"
"Kid Charlemagne"
(Encore) "Reelin' In The Years"

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