Steely Dan Makes Rock 'n' Roll for the Grownup Soul

Steely Dan
Steely Dan
Photo by Timothy Norris

After years of changing the classic rock station whenever one of their songs came on, it wasn't until four songs into their set at Perfect Vodka Amphitheater last night that I could fully appreciate Steely Dan.

We were midway through "Hey Nineteen." As the 10-member backing band riffed on the hit song's melody, guitarist Walter Becker addressed the audience in an absurd monologue befitting a band that named itself after a dildo in a William Burroughs novel and once employed a drummer (Chevy Chase) who was also an original cast member of Saturday Night Live.

"Good to be playing to you good people of Florida," Becker said to the crowd. "So what if the occasional toddler gets bit by the occasional crocodile here?" He went on like an uncle who hosts Thanksgiving but forgets not to get sloshed hours before guests arrive. "We're going to play all our hits from soup to nuts. We've got the greatest band we've ever had."

All of those statements were spot-on. The musicianship was excellent, and their two-hours-plus set was saturated with songs you knew the words to, though there was one sentence that Becker said in that rambling soliloquy that seemed especially poignant: "Tonight, you're going to think the good times aren't really over for good. They're back."

That statement captured both what originally repelled me from Steely Dan and what this concert taught me to love. This was the first band that made rock music for grownups. Rock 'n' roll from Elvis to the Stones to the Strokes was always three chords, crooning about lust with careless abandon. Steely Dan, meanwhile, wrote songs with complicated structures about regret and nostalgia. If the Beatles were what you played during your first kiss and the Cure was what you played during your first heartbreak, Steely Dan was the soundtrack for making your alimony payment.

Steely Dan Makes Rock 'n' Roll for the Grownup Soul (2)
Photo by Timothy Norris

On this Wednesday night, it sounded beautiful to be an adult. At 8:30 p.m., just as the sun was setting, the drummer, guitarist, bassist, and four-member horn section played the jazz instrumental "November Afternoon" before Becker and the other half of Steely Dan, keyboardist Donald Fagen, strutted on the stage. The vocals were backed by three women whom they called the Danettes, who when given a chance to lead on "Dirty Work" gave such a soulful rendition, you almost wish they had a chance to sing all the numbers.

But Fagen and Becker's voices were also in high form, holding up with the recordings that have been on constant rotation since 1972. "Aja" and "Rikki Don' Lose That Number" were both given their due, with each player also getting a well-deserved solo in the spotlight.

As he intro'd his partner Fagen, Becker also took a moment to reminisce with the crowd in a tone only someone who wrote a song called "Reelin' in the Years" could carry: "We've been making music for 50 years — How can that be? Especially when I'm 43." 

Setlist
November Afternoon
Black Cow
Aja
Hey Nineteen
Black Friday
Rikki Don't Lose That Number
Kid Charlemagne
Babylon Sisters
Dirty Work
Bodhisattva
Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More
Gold Teeth
I Want To (Do Everything for You)
Josie
Peg
My Old School
Reelin' in the Years

Encore
Pretzel Logic

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