“Just sit back and relax. We’ll take care of the music.” Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and a spectacular 12-piece band had just finished playing Steely Dan’s complete 1977 album AJA live, but as Fagen assured us, their show was far from over. On the opening New York date of their “Rent Party” tour, last night at the beautifully restored Beacon Theatre, the band offered the first of four different shows: the complete classic Lps AJA, THE ROYAL SCAM and GAUCHO, and an Internet request night, “Takin’ It To The Seats.” (If you held a ticket, you could vote up to July 18th, giving the guys time to dig up the charts.) So they’d done what they promised: played AJA in its entirety, complete with jaw-dropping sax solos, strange but seductive time signatures and impenetrable lyrics (“Double helix in the sky tonight / Throw out the hardware / Let’s do it right”). Now it was time for “selected additional favorites” — and more than an hour later, they had blown through about 15 other tunes. There’s no other way to put it: they just played their heads off.
I saw Becker and Fagen and their new touring band back in 2000 at an MTV taping to promote their first album together in 20 years, TWO AGAINST NATURE. It was in a small TV studio, seating maybe 100, 150, all around the band, and after a beautiful set, they passed around a Q&A microphone which found its way into my hand. Back around GAUCHO, I said, you told us not to worry about the meaning of your lyrics, that you were only interested in “the sound of the phonemes.” But the songs on this new record seem to, kind of, make sense. What’s up with that? (Yes, friends, I actually asked Donald Fagen why his lyrics were beginning to make sense.) Fagen stared me down for a moment and said, “When you’re promoting a record, by the end of the day you start saying things like ‘the sound of the phonemes.'” (In truth, that remark was on a Dan-produced GAUCHO interview show that Westwood One sent out to its radio stations, but cut the guy some slack.)
At the Beacon last night, Fagen told us he was suffering from a cold, but aside from saying hasta la vista to two or three high notes, he sounded fine to me. That’s the mark of a true pro, steely to the end. The audience was willing to help out: knowing he had a tough one coming up, they rode over “Is there gas in the cah? / Yes, there’s gas in the CAH!” The unexpected extra setlist included obviously-toiled-over songs from GAUCHO (“Babylon Sisters,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Time Out Of Mind”) and THE ROYAL SCAM (“Kid Charlemagne,” as noted above, “Don’t Take Me Alive”), but they also weren’t shy about getting into what Fagen called Deep Seventies: “Black Friday,” “Do It Again,” “Show Biz Kids,” “My Old School” (hot white floodlights exhorting the audience to scream “Whoa, no!”), “Reelin’ In The Years,” and some stuff you don’t hear much: “Parker’s Band,” and of course, “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More,” with Walt Becker on vocals!
The musicianship was superb. Imagine being good enough, and cocky enough, to audition for Steely Dan! Two players in particular carried the weight of monstrous expectations: Jon Herington on guitar and drummer Keith Carlock. Since the legendary Larry Carlton was planning to sit in on the band’s ROYAL SCAM dates (he played the original guitar solo on “Kid Charlemagne”), I thought they might persuade Bernard “Pretty” Purdie to sit in for AJA; after all, he’s just across town, drumming in the HAIR orchestra. But not only did Carlock kill on the mighty pounding that ends the song “Aja,” he made the famous Purdie Shuffle look easy on “Home At Last,” and it ain’t. And Herington did his best to nod to the original recordings, while maintaining his own point of view. He wasn’t about copycatting, but he was all over the fretboard — as was Becker, adding his distinctive fluid solos. The only Dan original player I missed was “Skunk” Baxter on “My Old School,” but Herington was plenty game. Saxman Walt Weiskopf defeated the difficult charts of “Aja” and “Deacon Blues,” and sizzled as part of the four-piece horn section.
As noted, all the audience had been promised was AJA. But from the opening high pling of “Black Cow” to the all-reet jazz walkout music after the two leaders had exited the stage, we left happily stuffed with Steely Dan. What was billed as an entree turned out to be a 14-course meal. And I still want more.
EDIT: At mid-afternoon, tonight’s show (the complete GAUCHO-“Plus”) was cancelled; Fagen must be sicker (hope it’s only his voice) than I thought. What a trouper.
THURSDAY: Ben Ratliff has a great review of the show I saw in today’s New York Times, and he confirms it was Donald’s illness that caused last night’s cancellation. Get better, dude: we need you!
8/7/15: Caught a nice set last night at the tiny Iridium jazz club on Broadway, former home base of Les Paul. It was a seven-piece band, plus two vocalists, fronted by Denny Dias, a Steely Dan founding member whose guitar work is on sessions up to and including AJA. Just lovely. And in October, we’ll head back to the Beacon for another Dan show after six years!
10/18/15: And their final 2015 NYC show last night at the Beacon, with most of the same crew from six years ago, was sublime. They flew Denny Dias in for the occasion and he sat in for about half the tunes. Donald Fagen was back in full throat, and Walt Becker was absolutely blabby. My only beef: they didn’t play “Do It Again.” Thought they were saving it for the encore, but there was only one: “Kid Charlemagne.” But, boys: omit “Do It Again,” one of your most popular tunes? I mean, Denny was standing right there, and he played the immortal “sitar-guitar” solo on the record! Oh, well. The searing solos of the three luscious “Danettes” on “Dirty Work” almost made up for it.