Steely Dan live in L.A.: Are full-album concerts getting tired?

They didn’t call it a “residency,” but Steely Dan’s four-night stand at the Gibson Amphitheatre in L.A. drew a lot of repeat offenders, shelling out the big bucks to see a different late ‘70s album performed in its entirety each night. The most noticeable audience regulars were a couple who sat in the front row each night wearing bright red fezzes — just waiting for that moment on Night 3, Royal Scam night, when the Dan would be obligated by advertisement to break into the very rarely played album track “The Fez.” Never mind that that vintage song is actually an ode to prophylactics (“Ain’t gonna do it without the fez on”) and not head gear. If audience members were going to come proudly sporting one or the other in honor of their musical heroes, I reckon these two made the right choice.

(Read Chris Willman’s full review after the jump, and listen to the studio version of “The Fez” below.)
The trend of veteran acts playing their classic albums all the way through in concert is starting to seem a little overfamiliar. Though it had certainly been done before, it seems to me the idea really got popularized by Brian Wilson taking Pet Sounds out on the road in 2002, to the point that, when Van Morrison flogged Astral Weeks on tour last year, he seemed like a common bandwagon-jumper. I’ll admit I’m looking forward this fall to the chance to see Springsteen run through the complete Born to Run, and the Pixies do a whole lot of Doolittle; less so to Motley Crüe summoning up the unabridged Dr. Feelgood. If you’re a rock & roll snob, you probably look down on this fad — isn’t it really treating once-spontaneous rock albums like immutable museum pieces? — until, of course, it’s your favorite band doing it. Then, all of a sudden, you’re slobbering over the guarantee of hearing a rarely revived deep cut that was buried on the middle of Side 2 in 1978 suddenly be taken out of mothballs and wildly applauded by 6,000 fellow believers.

I’m particularly in favor of artists choosing to revisit multiple albums from their catalog in one visitation, as a chance to indulge in their entire canon over the course of a few days. A couple of years back, Lucinda Williams played five of her albums back to back on nearly successive nights in New York and L.A., and I approached attending each one kind of as a marathon experiment, but couldn’t have been happier I indulged in the full immersion. Steely Dan has too many LPs to try performing them all, but in select cities they’re presenting the last three records they recorded during their original 1970s tenure — Gaucho, Aja, and The Royal Scam — along with a fourth “Internet requests night.” A lot of diehard fans would have preferred a night devoted to one of Steely Dan’s earlier and more energetic albums rather than the mellow LP that served as their swan song at the time in 1980. But that’s looking a gift Gaucho in the mouth, isn’t it?

So, the full-on Countdown to Ecstasy night will have to wait for some other year. But every night of this four-night stand was a countdown to ecstasy… including, I’m just going to presume, the one that I missed. I passed on Gaucho night, needing to save some money and being one of the malcontents who always found that album a bit too freeze-dried for its own good. Of course I was kicking myself for missing it when, at the following show, as one of the bonuses in the post-Royal Scam part of the set, they played “Third World Man” — with original session guitarist Larry Carlton playing a solo I can only describe as other-third-worldly — and the process of rediscovering that lesser-remembered gem immediately made me think I had to rush home and pull out Gaucho after all. The real thrill of shows like these isn’t in hearing the hits, because God knows every night is a virtual Aja night on a typical Steely Dan tour, given the extreme likeliness of hearing a faithfully rendered “Josie,” “Peg,” and two or three other of that album’s classic-rock standards at any given show.  No, the thrill is in hearing a supposedly lesser contender like Aja’s least remembered cut, “I Got the News,” and suddenly realizing it’s twice as frantic as you ever thought it was, thanks to the sight and sound of Keith Carlock, one of the world’s most awesome drummers, flailing at his kit like a man about to have a very accomplished nervous breakdown.

Full-album shows like these can also reinforce the preconceptions you bring in — like the one I have about The Royal Scam being Steely Dan’s finest album (why Aja T-shirts for sale in the lobby but none of that memorably ominous front cover? No fair!). Or my bias about Donald Fagen’s and Walter Becker’s overall catalog representing one of the most essential and least dated musical canons in the history of rock & roll. There’s a singularity and level of musical and lyrical accomplishment to each one of those albums that remains staggering. Has any other rock act ever been so popular and so un-influential? Their lack of influence while being so commercial is a testament to their greatness. Most musicians who are that jazz-influenced and that capable of sophisticated musical arrangements end up lost in humorless wankery. Most rockers who are that literate, intellectual, and honestly funny have little interest in the business of seriously developing their chops or being taskmasters over the world’s top session players. Steely Dan are where the twain met, and if the twain met only one time, it was enough to give us enough great records for a lifetime. The day that Becker met Fagen shouldn’t be celebrated as any less serendipitous an occasion than the day Lennon met McCartney or Jagger met Richards, even if Steely Dan was never going to spark a revolution.

A few random thoughts:

How is it that the song “Aja,” which builds from a laid-back groove into one of the greatest extended climaxes in rock, was placed in the very non-climactic middle of Side 1 on the album that bears its name? And even now, Steely Dan typically play it in the middle of their non-Aja sets, even though Keith Carlock’s drum solo that isn’t really a solo has the audience on its feet, screaming. You just feel like it’s time to go home after that number. But you don’t.

Remember how “Hey Nineteen” was about dating a shallow younger woman who didn’t know Aretha Franklin from Ben Franklin? As a friend of mine points out, the young thing in that song would now be approximately “Hey Forty-Eight.” So she’s probably heard “Respect” by now, wherever she is. But as someone once said, the women keep staying the same age while the men get old. So Walter Becker now interrupts the song most nights with an ever-changing monologue about how to impress one’s date after the show. On Royal Scam night, someone transcribed Becker’s rap as this: “So you are sitting over a drink and at first you say, ‘Nietzsche says that without music life would be a mistake.’ Your date stares blankly back at you so you try a different approach. ‘All cars should be exploded.’ Still no response. Finally you launch your last attempt: ‘There will be no world peace until the last priest is strangled with the entrails of the last politician.’ There is a slight smile but you’re still thinking that you might need to try again, at which point your date takes your hand, smiles, and says, ‘Don’t say another word… you had me at entrails.’” The next night, Becker did a less bizarre comic monolog about liquoring up your date, but I’d like to think he recognized just how perverse those of us who would show up specifically for The Royal Scam are.

And, finally, a note on demographics. I pointed out to a friend one of the nights that I might actually have been the youngest guy in the crowd (and trust me, this is not an observation I often get to make). My pal corrected me: No, he’d seen a bunch of dudes in their 20s out in the lobby… and he recognized them all as guys who work at the Guitar Center. A laugh, but no surprise there: Any list of the greatest guitar solos of all time usually includes “Reelin’ in the Years” or “Kid Charlemagne,” with literally dozens more to choose from. And in concert, the phenomenal Jon Herrington was able to put his own faithful-yet-freestyle spin on them all, even before O.G. Larry Carlton came in as a guest star the last two nights.

So it may be the wankers, not the hipsters, who keep Steely Dan’s legacy alive over future generations. In their day, the Dan were an obviously deserved critical favorite, but it’s too easy for today’s intelligentsia to hear the smooth horn charts and Cuervo-gold electric piano of the later records, miss the lyrical oddities and hairpin-turn spirit underneath it all, and kick ‘em to the smooth-jazz curb. But someday, somewhere, I have faith that some musically accomplished kid is going to hear “Don’t Take Me Alive” and start a punk-bebop revolution after all.  –Chris Willman


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  • Jaded1

    Man, that was a great article. One of the most thorough I’ve read on EW.com ever. Thanks Chris and count your blessings that you were one of the lucky ones to see these extraordinary concerts.

    • Ihh

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  • donner

    I LOVE Steely Dan…if I had the bank, I woulda gone to every night…

  • Jeff W.

    I’ve always hated live albums and I’m proud to say that I don’t own a single one. Live albums are just a way for bands to put out “new” material without actually creating any new material. Basically a live album says, “Buy music you already own that’s not going to sound as good as the stuido version”. For a band that has been around as long as Steely Dan, its shameful the way they try to milk their old material for additional money. Perhaps KISS can put out another live album.

    • BoB P

      Hey Jeff W. Where in the articel does it mention a Steely Dan live album? It’s was a concert dude.

    • richardfoc

      Jeff W – Okay, you don’t like live music. We get it. You stay home and hide inside your headphones while the rest of us go rock out to the non-studio versions of our favorite songs.

    • Bradford

      I can not thank you adequately for the posts on your web site. I know you’d put a lot of time and eforft into them and hope you know how much I appreciate it. I hope I’ll do exactly the same for someone else at some point.

  • David D

    I agree, a terrific article. And based on the headline I was prepared to weather a “they weren’t so good after all” diatribe. And for what it’s worth, “I Got The News” is one of my favorite SD songs. Have you ever heard the cover of it by Woody Herman’s big band?

  • Dinosaur

    I enjoyed reading this, and now I must listen to some SD.

  • richardfoc

    Steely Dan may not have been influential but they were/are certainly pervasive. I started listening to rock and roll in the mid-70’s when I was 9-10 years old and never considered myself a big Steely Dan fan. At least I didn’t until I listened to the Greatest Hits album a few years back and realized I knew practically every word to every song on that album. I guess during all my years of listening to AOR radio (back when rock radio really meant something) those songs kind of sunk in and never left.

  • nostatic

    My 12 year old son was in-tow for Aja on Friday night (and his first concert was last year at the Anaheim show) so there were some young’ns.

    Nice to see that you read my (hopefully accurate) transcription of Becker’s patter on the Bluebook. Now if only I could add that to my bibliography ;-)

    Carlock is god, and Herington isn’t shabby neither. The Aja night was as good as I’ve seen SD, with the previous best being the 2003 Universal show. Stunning music played by stunning musicians makes life…stunning.

  • ken lawrence

    Being a Brit and having bought every Steely Dan album on the day of release, seeing Becker, Fagen and the band perform Aja live in LA was the ultimate. Saw them four times in Europe but to witness them do it again on their own turf was perhaps the best live rock experience ever for me – and I’ve done Floyd, Stones, Springsteen, et al. I also found the above article a blast. It is well-informed and, finally, I discover someone prepared to accept what so many reviewers will not : that Steely Dan are and have been on a different plane intellectually and musically forever but the reviewer is neiter jealous or intimidated by that.
    In fact I wish that more would realise that they should not hide behind the soft-rock-jazz option in describing them and lock on to the fact that they are hard core lyricists who, since 1971, and actually before, provided commentary on the American Way ( I would also refer to Fagen’s solo trilogy particularly) and the hypocrasy of it all. Can’t Buy A Thrill is, in my view, one of the finest anti war, anti Vietnam albums ever made, for example. What many people never got about Steely Dan was that they clothed their acid observations of the phillistines, the fallen, the users and abusers of life, American life especially, in music designed to baffle the stupid and the unimaginative. And the politicans. They never went out to be the Great Informers although that is what they have always been. Americans, espcially younger Americans, should be made to read the lyrics even if they don’t like the music. That way, somewhat like Underworld by Don de Lillo, they will understand more of what is rotten here in the western world ( and by the way, as Britain is almost the 51st state, I include my home country on that one, too).
    Too many cliches have been written about Steely Dan for too long. Thank God they don’t do cliches. Maybe that’s another reason why, for all the grand esimations of them by those prepared to actually examine what they did – and to an extent still do – by many of us, right or wrong, they were never quite accepted by the masses.
    But you know what? They meant for that to happen, too

    Ken, LA.

    • Jonny in La Jolla

      I was in luck as my brother in law had invited me to see the “Dan”. I to was blow away my by the menage of sound, lyric and soul; Truly an experience on should have. Cheers to my mate and the boys for a night well done!
      Jonny in La Jolla

  • RoyalDanFan

    While I might argue with RS being the Dan’s best album (I think Pretzel Logic is a strong contender, albeit not as accessible) there is no doubt that SD is the best touring band in the world (wrt to musicianship that is..you may just not be into them and spend your $ elsewhere, theres no accounting for taste!)

    RDF don’t live in that New York City no more…but if I did Id be hunting Keith Carlock down in the local clubs every chance I got. He is a monster.

  • Frank From MusicNerdClub.com

    Great article. The Dan rules. Thoroughly underrated yet massively enjoyable. In my mind, their songs and ideas are still relevant in 2009.

    • Ionut

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  • KK

    Jeff W., re: live albums, you have a point with many rock lp’s but Dan’s “Alive in America” is an exceptionally GOOD soundling live cd, certainly one of the best I’ve ever heard. Becker & Fagen always took great interest in the sound quality and production of their albums and “Alive in America” is no exception.

    • Gio

      That second track, Fallin’ (Teenage Fan Club & De La Soul) is ounatsnditg.The movie itself isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing to get worked up over, either. Dennis Leary gets to monologue in his comic style, and a not-yet famous Jeremy Piven gets some screen time in a role whose ending is easily predicted

  • Wallstrafed ii

    r u sure u work for ew? this is an excellent review of one of the top 5 bands of all time.

  • kcshowman

    Great review of a great residency. Always insightful, Chris Willman puts his finger on the essence of what was a historic set of live dates by the Dan. I’ve been to almost every show in L.A. or Irvine since they reappeared on the concert scene in ’93, so I have a bit of a perspective on their history here. The Friday night show was fiery, which was expected as it was opening night and I believe that “Aja” is both a band and fan favorite. I’m sorry that CW missed “Gaucho” on Saturday night because it ranks right up there as one of their best L.A. performances ever. Drummer Keith Carlock and lead guitarist Jon Herrington are in a class by themselves and define “world class” on their instruments at this point in time, imho. Becker, who phoned it in on last year’s appearance at the Nokia, was insidiously brilliant and a perfect foil to Herrington. His approach to the guitar is eccentric and fascinating. Walter and Donald’s only occasional problem is having enough energy to support the brilliant ouvre that they have created, night by night. Fagen killed on Saturday night, supplying not only the energy and the chops but the wry, world-weariness that is like oxygen for die-hard SD fans. Plus he was in great voice, mixing beautifully with the three-woman choir, and downright playful as he traded licks on his Melodica with Becker. Ready Freddy Washington is a groovemeister but wouldn’t it have been fantastic to have Chuck Rainey on this tour? Or how about Tal Wilkenfeld, taking time out from her tour with Jeff Beck, who came out to support her sometime bandmate Keith? As good as “Gaucho” was, the much-anticipated Monday night performance of “The Royal Scam” (with Larry Carlton) was oddly disappointing. Probably the most demanding album in the catalog, both of musicians and listeners, the band came out in a distinctly reserved mode and mostly stayed there until the end of the night. This was primarily due to Larry. Always the master of understatement and taste, on this night he seemed almost intimidated by Becker and Herrington. I even thought that the Dan’s musicianship might have moved beyond the best that this former titan of the recording industry could muster up. But his brilliance did manifest sporadically, especially on the ending solo on “Third World Man” and later on “Peg”. Luckily, the Tuesday night Internet Request performance dispelled fears of Carlton’s irrelevance as he stepped up with both energy and volume, inspiring the band to match the energy of the “Aja” and “Gaucho” nights. I’m going to remember the ’09 Rent Party tour for a long time. The guys aren’t ready to retire to Vegas quite yet.

  • GRAHAM COWDREY

    A common bandwagon-jumper. Van Morrison flogging out Astral Weeks. What a quite ludicrous statement. I flew out from London to see the two Hollywood Bowl shows. They were historic shows – Van playing an album that is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. Please dont compare Van Morrison with others. One thing he is not is a band-wagon jumper. Cheap journalism Im afraid.

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