For me, one of the great remaining joys in life is seeing Steely Dan live. Go one further: seeing them play their seminal neo-jazz pop album “Aja” from 1977, now considered an all time classic.
I got my wish last night when “The Dan Who Knew Too Much” tour, in its 8th show (of 10) at the Beacon lifted off with the collection of songs that comprise that album including the title track, plus “Deacon Blues,” and the hits “Peg” and “Josie.” There is no more sophisticated band playing today and no compositions by a mainstream radio act that equal the songs of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.
They started as a combo from Bard College in the late 60s (with Chevy Chase on drums), played state fairs as the backup band for Jay and the Americans, and then burst onto the scene in 1973 with cryptically worded jazz inflected singles like “Do it Again” and “Reeling in the Years.” After a long break from the early 80s to the mid 90s, they reformed and have never looked back. Steely Dan (named for a sex device William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”) has only grown, the songs were so well constructed that they’ve become richer, and the main duo have found a permanent group of musicians to help them recreate their inventions.
“When punk came in,” Fagen told me last night, “some people called it elevator music.” I am aghast. All you have to do is go see “Oh Hello on Broadway,” the hilarious comedy with Nick Kroll and John Mullaney. Their characters adore Steely Dan, and the music is heard throughout the night. The Dan have aged very very well.
The band members– Jon Herington, Freddie Washington, Jim Beard, Keith Carlock, plus the horns Roger Rosenberg, Walt Weiskopf, Michael Leonhart, Jim Pugh, and the backup singers– Carolyn Leonhart, Cindi Mizelle and my new fave La Tanya Hall–crackle. Becker joins them on guitar solos. Fagen leads the group from his keyboard station down front. You have to watch them. No one is ever idle. They are a well oiled machine flexible enough to handle improvisations against the structure of the Becker-Fagen architecture. If there are mistakes, the audience doesn’t hear them.
Jazz, bebop, big band all still inform Steely Dan. Fagen made a few references last night to Cab Calloway, and the audience seemed to get them. (The audience is 95% white, male, gray, balding, some beards.) The band also played the Joe Tex song “(I Want to Do) Everything for You,” as Becker intro’d the band. But otherwise, the rotating set of songs is drawn from the 80 or so titles that make up the main Steely Dan canon. “Some of them are really hard,” Fagen told me backstage. (He wrote them.) “Glamour Profession,” he says, naming one and shakes his head. An old song, “Dirty Work,” revived on the “American Hustle” soundtrack, is now sung by the three backup ladies to get the sweet sound of the group’s one time lead singer David Palmer.
I report this as a fan boy who knows the lyrics and grew up in real time with Steely Dan. Jon Herington plays that ferociously famous solo guitar part from “Reelin’ in the Years” and it’s magic. You want to be him. Each horn player gets a magnificent solo. Becker himself is totally impressive wielding his axe, leading the organization through “Daddy Don’t Live in New York.” Washington brings the verisimilitude of the funk. And Fagen is like the Ed Sullivan of the gang, an unlikely rock star host who still shuns fame and errs on the literary. (He’s just published a book of anecdotes and bon mots called “Eminent Hipsters.)
We gossip a little while Fagen unwinds after the show listening to Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett. There’s some gossip, and we reminisce about our late mutual friend, the legendary Phoebe Snow. Fagen tells me: “I’m so glad Bob Dylan hasn’t acknowledged the Nobel Prize. They don’t get it. He’s an artist.” He says Dylan may still be mad at him for quotes attributed to Fagen that weren’t too generous about Dylan’s aging voice. “He’s mad at me. He even mentioned us in a speech. Fagen says it came out the wrong way. “Just say, we love him, he’s Bob Dylan, we talk about him all the time.”
Steely Dan. Thanks.