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