In 1973, when Donald Fagen snarled disparagingly of “Show Biz Kids” in their “Steely Dan t-shirts”, he couldn’t have expected that forty years later he’d be embarking on epic cross-country tours, singing the same line night after night to thousands of fans dressed in over-priced garb emblazoned with the name of his very same band. The irony is not lost on Fagen nor his Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker. Having given up touring in the mid-seventies, retreating to the studio to focus on the pursuit of jazz-rock perfection, the duo reformed a live band in the early nineties and have been on the road or in the studio ever since. They recently penned a song about their reincarnation called “The Steely Dan Show” (part celebration, part self-deprecation), suggesting the pair now warily embrace the commercial touring routine.
Tonight sees the band coming to the end of a 53-show U.S. tour, the cryptically-titled “Mood Swings 2013: Eight Miles to Pancake Day”. The final seven shows take place at New York’s Beacon Theatre, and as soon as I get off the 1 train at 72nd Street I am approached by several middle-aged men trying to sell me tickets and knock-off merchandise that goes for a third of the price of those inside the lobby. The bar offers a special $14 cocktail called “Deacon Blues”, which depressingly consists of Absolut vodka and Sprite. Why not a Zombie from a cocoa shell, I wonder. Or a Black Cow? Or even a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen? Tonight the crowd is the usual mix of aging hipsters and major dudes, kids with cool parents and couples of all ages who know a tasty horn chart when they hear it. I have a pretty good seat at the front of the lower balcony, and have time to admire the extraordinarily ornate interior of the old theatre, as well as the extensive selection of guitars lined up on stage.
At 8:45pm the band, minus its two leaders, swishes into a jazzy introductory overture, towards the end of which the two founding members of Steely Dan make their entrance. In bright red Nikes, customary Wayfarers and a grey shirt that he looks like he’s been wearing since last night, Donald Fagen slouches onto the stage with the purposefulness of someone who’s just awoken from an extended nap. Meanwhile, his partner in crime Walter Becker ambles into view from the left, his head bobbing from side to side as he noodles on a sparkling apple-green Stratocaster. Taking his place behind the keyboard, Fagen leads the band into an unlikely opener, “Your Gold Teeth”, probably the only pop song in history to make reference to Cathy Berbarian. Unfortunately it turns out to be the most interesting song choice of the evening, as the show which had been billed as “Request Night” quickly shifts into a run-through of the band’s most popular, radio-friendly hits (maybe that’s what the audience requested).
Fagen seemed in high spirits from the start. “Sit back, relax and let the good times roll!” he implored in a possible reference to his idol Ray Charles, whose performance traits behind the keyboard he has frequently appropriated. For a 65-year-old he sang really well, taking intermittent sips from an ever-present can of Coke and even wandering out from behind the keyboard a few times to play his melodica with gusto. I’d read reports of last week’s shows describing Becker’s stage presence as “confused”. Apparently one night last week he disappeared halfway through the show and never came back. Tonight he interrupted “Hey Nineteen” to perform his weird welcoming monologue (which I’ve seen him do twice before), only this time he rambled on for what felt like several minutes, and when the song finally picked up again I’d almost forgotten which one it was. Later he performed lead vocal duties on “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More”. Becker’s evidently more suited to those slightly scathing, humourous songs (I’ve seen him sing “Haitian Divorce” and “Gaucho” before), whereas Fagen seems more at ease with the warmer, more human numbers, something that’s definitely reflected in their solo work.
Becker also had trouble settling on his instrument, frequently switching between at least six different guitars. In addition to the aforementioned sparkly apple-green Strat he also used a cherry-red Stratocaster, a cream Telecaster, a gold Gibson Les Paul, a Gibson Flying V and a Gibson Explorer. Jon Herington on the other hand was happy to rely only on a Gibson SG, Gibson Archtop and a Telecaster, coming up with a handful of devastating solos along the way. With his glasses and crisp blazer I always think he looks more like an interior designer or marketing director than lead guitarist, and I get the impression he’s reluctant to bask in the spotlight, preferring to hover near the curtain rather than soak up the audience’s roars of approval.
Clearly there is no discussion about stage presence or costumes, as everyone (with the exception of the girl singers in their little black dresses) seems to have shown up in whatever they happened to be wearing that day. Trumpet player Michael Leonhart sports a jaunty red fedora while his trombonist neighbor Jim Pugh looks like somebody’s dad in loose-fit jeans and running shoes. Although the juxtaposition is funny it only reinforces the sense that the show is more about expert musicianship than any kind of spectacle. When you read the bios of the individual band members on the official website you realize that these are among the very best musicians you’ll ever see, having between them played with everyone. The other stand-out performer is drummer Keith Carlock, who has probably one of the most challenging yet rewarding jobs in music. The rest of the band is referred to these days as the “Bipolar Allstars”, while the backing singers are known as the “Borderline Brats”. The all-female vocalists shared the lead on “Dirty Work” and a Joe Tex cover called “I Want To (Do Everything For You)”, the arrangement of which sounded exactly like “Chain Lightning”. During this song Becker introduced the band, describing Fagen in typically humourous terms: “…World traveller, organic gourmet chef and stern critic of the contemporary scene…”
They pile on the fan favorites towards the end, and the crowd seems very satisfied. Despite the hit-laden set list there is no room tonight for perennial live cuts such as “Bad Sneakers”, “Green Earrings” or “Josie”. Afterwards Fagen hands a pineapple that had been sitting mysteriously on top of an amp to a fan in the front row. The band returns for an encore and plays “Kid Charlemagne” (“Yes there’s gas in the car!”), allowing Herington to produce perhaps his best solo of the night. Becker and Fagen give a wave to the crowd and disappear again, leaving the band to play the audience out. It’s a slightly anti-climactic end to the show, and there is little sense of the musicians wanting to play any longer than the time allotted or give you a dollar more than your money’s worth.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen Steely Dan since they started touring again after an almost twenty-year hiatus: on the Art Crimes ’96 tour in Birmingham, at the Sanbitter Festival in Lucca in 2007, and once before at the Beacon in 2008. Over the past few years their week-long residence at the storied venue has become something of an Upper West Side tradition, and there is certainly a pervading sense of over-familiarity throughout the evening. Of course, there is no such thing as a bad Steely Dan concert, but this one was perhaps more for the casual fan of FM radio than for those of us who still have every note they’ve ever recorded on heavy rotation. The band is cooking throughout and as tight as ever, but I’d have appreciated a few less oft-performed album tracks to have been thrown into the mix, something that in the past I think they’ve always managed to do quite well. Rumours abound that Don ‘n’ Walt are working up a new record, so why not use the occasion to debut some new material, or at the very least throw in something off either of their most recent solo albums? Knowing Fagen’s encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and r’n’b I’m surprised he doesn’t branch out a bit and take advantage of that vast level of musicology to work some twists into the performances. They seemed to do that a lot when they first started touring again (see the live horn-driven version of “Reelin’ In The Years” on Alive in America), but tonight most songs were replicated exactly as they sound on the recorded versions. I kept listening out for how they’d come up with an ending for songs that fade out on record, which along with Herington’s solos and the backing vocals was the only element exclusive to the live performance.
A recent gimmick among aging rock acts has been the live reproduction of LPs in their entirety, something Steely Dan are not immune to, having performed shows this week devoted to the classic albums, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho. Each of these shows began with backing vocalist Carolyn Leonhart dropping the needle on a spinning turntable on stage, a knowing joke that blurs the lines between live performance and recording. Tonight the newest song on the set list was originally recorded thirty-three years ago, but I think there’s a big difference between listening to old music at home and seeing/hearing it reproduced in person. A record is exactly that, and will always sound exactly the same. A concert is a totally different means of presenting the music, open to variation and spontaneity, with the exchange between performer and audience being more direct and reciprocal. I’ve always believed that a live act with any kind of longevity has to learn to keep things fresh, stay two steps ahead of their audience, even if it forces concert-goers to face the unexpected and even forgo hearing their favourite song. Otherwise it’s merely an exercise in nostalgia. Becker and Fagen surely know by now that those days are gone forever (over a long time ago… oh yeah).
Steely Dan, Beacon Theatre, October 5th, 2013:
Blueport (Gerry Mulligan cover — band only)
Your Gold Teeth
Hey Nineteen (WB extended monologue)
Show Biz Kids
Time Out Of Mind
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More (WB lead vocal)
Dirty Work (backing singers lead vocals)
I Want To (Do Everything For You) (Joe Tex cover, backing singers lead vocals, band intros by WB)
My Old School
Reelin’ In The Years
Outro (band only)