Becker and Fagen go
reeling in the years for the Blurt braintrust Nov. 10 & 11 at Cincinnati’s Taft
Theatre. No hoodies, messenger bags or ironic indie stances allowed.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
There’s something touching, if not always exciting, about
musicians performing their older albums – sometimes classic, sometimes
overlooked – in toto at concerts. It
has a “do not go gentle into that good night” quality about it.
As album sales drop and the public increasingly responds
only to individual songs experienced in scattershot manner – a radio hit here,
a TV or commercial soundtrack there, a cute YouTube video in between – artists
who once believed in albums (their albums) want to get out there and prove they were right. They want to lobby for
their records having legacies as coherent artistic statements.
Certainly, Steely Dan – Donald Fagen and Walter Becker –
hope that. In their prime, they took years between albums, painstakingly
working to wed sophisticated jazz-rock arrangements to their opaquely hipster
(but also often achingly romantic) lyrics. They even refused to tour, afraid
their concerts wouldn’t live up to their albums as statements of value. Now,
they certainly don’t want all that work to fade away, like 78 or 16 rpm records
So, with a jazz-rock big band complete with three female
back-up singers who can soulfully croon “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart”
to mark a stage-show transition, they’ve hit the road on the Rent Party ’09
tour. They’re doing (mostly) two-night stands in cities, spotlighting 1977’s Aja one show and 1976’s The Royal Scam the next. Both full-album
performances are followed by greatest-hits sets. Based on their engagement at
Taft Theatre in Cincinnati,
Aja certainly endures as a whole. Royal Scam, not so much.
But the big surprise about Steely Dan live in 2009 is what
an enormously empathic figure Fagan has become. Once considered to be as
prickly and standoffish as his cryptically put-down lyrics indicated, he’s aged
into a professorial figure — white/gray
hair, slightly hunched, unassumingly casual dress except for sunglasses with
big, showbiz-kid-style frames. When he bows to acknowledge applause as he takes
the stage, he exudes graciousness.
At the keyboard, facing the audience but head pointed upward
to better sing out, he recalls Ray Charles. His voice has always been
conversational, more organic than mannered and thus more nuanced than powerful,
so it’s impressive just how well he maintains clarity and diction through two
long shows. He also stands and plays melodeon on a few songs, like “Aja” – such
a pleasantly exotic sound.
Becker, looking dapper and a bit mischievously cherubic,
stands front and center and serves as a kind of slightly ironic ringmaster. He
parses out his guitar solos – Jon Herrington plays many of the flashy leads –
and sings but one song, “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More.” But
he introduces the band and gives a droll monologue that breaks up the
otherwise-too-long instrumental break in “Hey Nineteen.” Mostly, he makes
himself a presence.
As do the band members, bathed in brilliantly changing stage
lights, as they fill out the songs with equally colorful, impeccable solos on
trumpet (Michael Leonhart), trombone (Jim Pugh), sax (Walt Weiskopf), baritone
sax (Roger Rosenberg), and even a drum solo or two (Keith Carlock).
Aja, which opened
the first night, flows live like a suite, with the extended instrumental
passages enriching the poignancy of the lyrics. The songs have just the right
groove – the jazz passages from the horn section push the bluesy rock ‘n’ roll
underpinnings of “Black Cow,” “Deacon Blues” and “Aja” forward and bring out
the swaying brightness of “Peg.” “Home at Last” and “I Got the News” are the
lesser-known cuts, but the first provides Becker a good showcase for his
slightly discordant guitar work.
On the first night, the Aja performance had the crowd enthralled and high, and everyone stayed that way
during the show’s remainder. But on the second night, people mostly sat through
Royal Scam. It has neither the
majestic sweep of Aja nor the vivid
lyrics, and there’s a plodding quality to some of the more blues-based numbers.
It also never quite recovers from opening with its best song, the funky “Kid
Charlemagne,” which like a fighter fires off its quick, deft rhythmic changes
and sizzling guitar solos while never losing balance, repeatedly returning to
its euphoric chorus whenever it seems in danger of getting lost.
A few other Scam songs had life to them – singers Tawatha Agee, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and
Catherine Russell did a sexy take on “The Fez.” The reggae-flavored “Haitian
Divorce” also had an alluring major-minor key chorus that is a Fagan specialty.
But the title number, a long one, is flat – it’s all words trapped in a fancy
arrangement without being a well-realized song.
Steely Dan wisely included several Aja songs in the greatest-hits segment of the second night’s show,
and those along with favorites like “Reelin’ in the Years,” “My Old School,”
“Black Friday” and “Dirty Work” (with the back-up singers taking the lead) left
everyone standing and cheering.
Judging from the lack of Pretzel
Logic songs on the playlist, as well as only a couple from Katy Lied, we might see Steely Dan hit
the road doing those albums next year. If so, don’t lose that number for
tickets – it’ll probably be a draw.