A long time ago, in his college years, Chevy Chase sat in a few times as a drummer in a band called Leather Canary. He later described the ensemble as "a bad jazz band." Whether the other members of this group completely agree with that assessment is unknown. What is known is that two of the other members were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, better-known as the musically meticulous, lyrically lacerating Steely Dan.
Chevy was maybe on to something, as the two never really took flight as full-fledged jazz guys. Thankfully. Instead, they went on to create music that was both successful and able to avoid ever really being pigeonholed into any one genre. Jazz rock? Jazz pop? Classic rock? Whatever. Just one of those few bands that gets left alone to do its thing.
Last night, they brought their thing to Mizner Park Amphitheater. The audience, for the most part, kinda looked like they were in a Larry David lookalike contest. As a smooth blues jazz group called the Deep Blue Organ Trio opened the show, most people took this opportunity to start reelin' in the beers.
Before too long though, as the stage warmers were wrapping up their short set, dark clouds rolled over the roofless amphitheater followed by "uh oh" speckles of rain. But just like the 2000 Steely Dan album, Two Against Nature predicted, the main attraction took the stage and the dark clouds rolled away.
The 11-piece backing band of top-notch players unrolled a huge red sonic carpet of swanky big band jazz for for Fagen and Becker to stroll on stage to. Fagen in his nighttime shades ready to do his Ray Charles thing and Becker, well, not much of a stage presence there.
Without as much as a "Good evening," they started in on "Your Gold Teeth" from their 1973 album. A song with an open enough structure to allow almost every member of the band a few bars to show us their stuff. Becker and Fagen are known for being incredibly selective about the caliber of musician they allow into their circles, so it was good stuff.
Next, right in to "Aja," the wandering title track from their 1977 album. For most of the 8 minute song it was as spot-on as live music can be to the album version. The last part though, which is the best part, was not. Changing things up and making it your own is OK, except the drum part at the end of "Aja."
All was forgiven immediately as the opening guitar lick of "Hey Nineteen" began. Who can be mad while that song is playing? What Walter Becker lacked in stage presence he made up for with a witty monologue roughly based on the lyrics of the song. Quite the crowd charmer when he decides speak. Though what points he earned in his monologue he lost again with his in his inability to stop noodling on that damn guitar in every open space he could find all through the set. He's definitely a competent player, but less is more, Walter. Haven't you learned anything from hanging around all those session guys?
Luckily, all the more renowned Steely Dan solos were handled by guitar magician Jon Herington. Herington took all the classic solos such as the one on "Peg" and "Reeling in the Years" and did something you don't hear often. Hinted at the original heavily while making it his own thing. (This is allowed in all music except for the drum part at the end of "Aja.")
One of the best moments of the night was their reconfigured version of "Razor Boy." By assigning all vocal duties to the three pitch perfect female back up singers, and then replacing the original eerie pedal steel solo with a smokey muted trumpet, they took an odd song and made it beautiful.
Fagen returned to his place as lead singer again after that. One of those acquired tastes, his voice was gruff and squawky as always, and it held up fine all night.
Throughout the twenty song set, Steely Dan paid no mind to many of their lesser known tracks and only played one newer one called "Godwhacker." No one was calling out any requests either. After the backing bands' introductions, both Fagen and Becker took turns introducing one another. What was surprising, given their reputation for quippy, biting humor, was that they had nothing but complimentary things to say about one another. Surprising and endearing considering their almost 50 year history. After a tiny break, they came back out and killed "Kid Charlemagne." Leaving everyone with their fill of Steely Dan for the night. (This is only a little funny if you know the origin of the band name.)
Thank you, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, for not being a good jazz band and being a great whatever kind of band you are.
By Max Johnston
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