Our buddy Bear from Cleveland Rock and Roll went to see Steely Dan earlier this week. Though we tried, we couldn't scrape together the dollars here at ATV HQ to fund a ticket for either of the two Steely Dan shows, so we invited Bear to share his review of the first night!
Is There Gas In The Car? Yes, There’s Gas In The Car…. Or Is There?
It has been 35 years since I last saw Steely Dan perform.
That’s like 245 dog years or the average number of combined years for the careers of any 12 artists of this decade.
That 1974 tour was the last tour they did before breaking up in 1981 and it was also the last time Steely Dan was really a band, and not just Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Steely Dan back then was Becker, Fagen, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Denny Dias and Victor Feldman. That was a line-up of some serious musicians, but the road took its toll that year and Becker and Fagen decided they wanted to just work in the studio and produce albums - thus it was the last tour for 19 years.
The first thing I noticed Monday night was the difference in Donald Fagen. Back in 1974 he didn’t seem to want to be there much, but in 2009 it looked like he was actually having fun performing his songs live. The second thing I noticed - they put together a hell of a band to re-produce that studio sound. I don’t know if you really can understand how hard it has to be to produce that Steely Dan sound live. Fagen and Becker were famous during the recording process for bringing in three, four or five different sets of musicians to play each song they were recording and picking the best parts of each group for the final product. For example on the Aja album - 37 musicians are credited for playing on it, and 27 musicians are credited on Royal Scam. To Becker and Fagen they always set out to produce the perfect studio albums but how would that come through now live?
The night I went was the night they featured the album Aja. This was a monster album in 1977 and has held up through the years. Frankly, it’s a classic and I looked forward to seeing it performed live in its entirety. I mean these are songs I have listened to for 30+ years on albums, cassettes, CDs and on the radio but never live. So there was a definite high expectation for me.
So how did it come out?
Amazing…just amazing. I sat there and just drank in some of the best music ever produced being played live and being done well. The songs just kept rolling through the night: “Black Cow,” “Aja,” “Deacon Blues,” “Peg,” “Home At Last,” “I Got The News” and “Josie” and that was just the Aja part of the show! The rest of the night was like a Steely Dan jukebox filled with hits: ”Black Friday,” “Time Out Of Mind,” “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More,” “Bodhisattva,” “Babylon Sisters,” “Show Biz Kids,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Dirty Work,” “Do It Again,” “Don’t Take Me Alive," “My Old School,” “Kid Charlemagne” and for the encore, “Reeling In The Years”. I mean come on, how could you not like that set list?
The band they put together was up to the task - especially guitarist Jon Herrington, who had many shoes to fill in for the many great guitarists that originally played on those songs. He did a great job and the band as a whole was fantastic. Walter Becker got to show his chops taking over some of the guitar solos, but the highlight for me was the unique and stylish vocals of Donald Fagen, who still can produce those notes. As my wife said to me during the show “he sounds better now than he did on the album.”
Not everything was perfect mind you but it was pretty close. I didn’t think Becker doing the vocals on “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More” really carried well. I was disappointed that they let the three female backup singers do the vocals on “Dirty Work.” I know, I know. This is the only song that Fagen did not sing on an album, but if he did not want to do the vocals then they should have let one of the other musicians take a shot at it or not do it at all. It’s probably my favorite Steely Dan song of all time and instead of being a great bluesy rock song the arrangement became a torch song of sorts.
My only other complaint about the night and this is a personal observation. This is to the couple sitting next to me: Why do you go to a concert and feel the need to talk to each other? Was the conversation boring on the ride over and you felt a need to pick it up, or was it so stimulating that you had to continue it? Also, why yell out “Woooooooooo!” at the start of every song? Did you think that Donald was going to say “Thank you everyone and especially to that guy in Row L Seat 49 for that Woooooooo!” I hope you're reading this and my advice to you - or anyone else that this could fit - Shut the hell up!
Okay enough of my rant.
To answer the famous line from “Kid Charlemagne,” is there gas in the car?
Yes there is, and there is still plenty left in the tank of Steely Dan!
Image of Donald Fagen courtesy of China Lost and Found