Words by Chadbyrne R. Dickens
“Please take me along when you slide on down” – Donald Fagen
All good things must come to an end, and on October 8th, the legendary jazz juggernaut, Steely Dan, played their last concert of 2013. It was fitting that their final performance for “The Don” and company of a 53-show “Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day” tour, appropriately took place at their upscale home field of The Beacon Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side of New York City. The concert showcased one of our most divisive bands, one possessing a true love/hate relationship with the populace. The band fosters a split due to their unique blend of jazz musings and rock/pop sensibilities.
The show marked the closure of another successful 8-show run at the Beacon which this year again included varied ticketed performances of different albums in their entirety as well as offering an “audience request” and a “greatest hits” night. Similar to the Grateful Dead or Phish, where one can attend multiple shows without hearing a song twice, the structure of the shows fostered presentation of nightly set lists that pulled in all directions from a deep and comprehensive catalog. The band on stage consisted of 11 members (including three singers and four horns), reminiscent of the crowded Earth, Wind and Fire incarnation of the 1970’s. However, since their official beginning at Bard college in 1972 (where Chevy Chase once admirably filled-in on drums in previous early formations) the fearless leaders of The Dan remain Donald Fagen (vocals/keys/melodica) and Walter Becker (guitar). Known as cerebral and eccentric, Steely Dan’s original compositions are written by the accomplished duo.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers consistently crafted such meticulous albums, with complicated time signatures, complex lyrics and unparalleled progressive chord progressions, that critics said the layered work on the albums could never be satisfactorily duplicated and they should prohibit themselves from playing outside the studio. A near 20 year break from touring (1974-1993) only fueled that misconception. But, the band has dismissed critics and buoyed audience adulation with consistently stellar live performances since their return to the stage over 5 years ago and this New York night was a blistering example of their current prowess. However, the professional outfit fully realized upon moving to Brooklyn decades ago and since releasing nine albums – how to create one. Having not lost their touch in the studio, they won the Grammy for Album of the Year for “Two Against Nature” in 2001 (beating out Eminen’s Marshall Mathers LP). Despite the well-documented genius of many albums, most notably “Aja”, which was the #3 album of 1977, it was their first award in the category.
The show was sold-out, hectic and crowded with a busy concessions area beforehand. Inherent with the average fan being over 40 years old, it was not surprising the Steely Dan used this as an opportunity to offer tickets at upwards of $200 face value to a captive audience that could afford it. Outside the Beacon, a bevy of professional scalpers served up some of the most exhorbanant prices you’ll ever see on concert tickets. The show began without Fagen and Becker present, but the rest of the musicians led a groovy musical exploration complete with jazz solos and scales. Finally, the duo emerged to an uproar of applause.
At times funk, at time exploratory jam, albeit structured, and at times jazz, the professional outfit proceeded to delve into a rich and varied catalog of well-known songs. Highlights included a lengthy and mesmerizing “Aja”, which, similar to Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant”, was clearly written in parts and operatic in its ambitions. The fusion of the four brass players was tantalizingly effective and blended well with Fagen’s smooth vocals and playing of the melodica (a blow-organ similar to a harmonica).
A fan favorite, “Hey Nineteen” was played well and tight. It included Becker, noticeably heavier and older than his iconic prime years, busting out a lengthy soliloquy, “Summer is shot to hell, the tour is shot to hell, but tonight is the best night of 2013!” Becker continued on the mic, and as he is often prone to do, he relayed a layered yarn that eventually landed into one finding “Cheeba Cheeba” and of course, the “Cuervo Gold” and nirvana, before seguing back into “Hey Nineteen” and into the section where the iconic lyrics are so eloquently placed . Interestingly, the alcohol reference to “Cuervo Gold” is one of eight libations included prominently in a Steely Dan lyric.
The first cut from their massive, “Aja” release was performed next. “Black Cow”, a brilliantly bouncy and contagious song, showcased Fagen’s sly style. Adorning black sunglasses and tilting his head up in the air, he was reminiscent of Little Stevie Wonder. Next was “Black Friday” which was a vehicle to share the guitar chops of Jon Herington. Herington, lead guitarist since 2000 (replacing the well-respected, Larry Carlton) shared lead duties with Becker, while adding a flare for more improvisation than his famous veteran colleague. The disco rhythms of the alluring and sexy, “Time Out of Mind” off the “Gaucho” album, invited one into a trance. Usually transfixed, across the stage from one another, it was comforting when Fagen moved next to Becker towards the end of the tune.
Other highlights include the inclusion of their 1972 chart hits “Reelin’ in the Years” and a well-done version of 1977’s “Peg”, which included the background singers doing an adequate job attempting to make us forget Michael McDonald’s intensely satisfying background vocals during the chorus on the studio version. Of course, they didn’t fail to play their most successful single to date, “Ricki Don’t Lose That Number” which received # 4 on the US charts in 1974. The sing a long about self-discovery, “Deacon Blues”, got the sit-down crowd involved before the bass of “FM” rocked the joint. It wasn’t until the raucous “My Old School” that a single person stood up and actually danced. The professional playing of Keith Carlock, one of the best drummers in the business, and the stand-out synchronized dancing and showmanship of the background singers, “The Borderline Brats”, should be noted. The encore delighted the crowd, as arguably the band’s most popular and certainly most punchy tune, “Kid Charlemagne”, about Owsley Stanley and the use of LSD, entranced the audience.
Becker had claimed early on, “the grooves will be long and mighty”, and indeed it was an intensely satisfying night for all. One not only got lost in the music, but one could say it was time best served – out of mind.
FYI: Donald Fagen’s new book, Eminent Hipsters, will be available in stores on October 22nd.
Your Gold Teeth
Aja, Hey Nineteen
Show Biz Kids
Time Out of Mind
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
FM (No Static at All)
Don’t Take Me Alive
I Want to (Do Everything for You)
My Old School
Reelin’ in the Years
TheWaster.com | NYC