Live Music: Steely Dan at the Greek Theatre

By Mike Finkelstein

Steely Dan packed the Greek Theatre on Friday night, performing their Aja album in its entirety, as well as over an hour more of fan favorites and rarities  for an adoring crowd of their die hard fans.   In many ways, Los Angeles is just the right place to see this band perform because so many of their songs are narratives set in this city.  Friday night was the sort of summer evening that reminds one of why people love to live in LA, despite the inconveniences that come with it.  The weather was simply perfect, not too warm or cool, with an occasional light breeze to make the point.  When the weather is this good, audiences at the Greek usually anticipate it ahead of time and dress light.   Friday’s crowd was notable for its abundance of beautiful women delighting in showing off their smooth-skinned and toned bodies with casual style.

A little history about the band is useful.  In their prime, led by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Steely Dan blazed an unorthodox path to huge success. Between 1972 and 1974 they recorded and toured, like all signed bands, to support their early albums Countdown to Ecstasy and Can’t buy A Thrill.   These records yielded some successful singles and, moreover, a fine assortment of very special, deeper album cuts.   And so SD became strong favorites with the underground FM radio scene of the times.   They were eclectic, engaging, sarcastic, rocking, jazzy and had a beat appeal.   But after 1974, at a highpoint in their career, Becker and Fagen became so weary of touring and so obsessive about the writing, arranging, and recording of their songs that they became studio recluses. The band became increasingly faceless, just Becker and Fagen, and a revolving door of top session players.  They stopped touring, too.

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker

Between 1975 and 1980 they released four very successful platters: Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho. None of the albums even showed the band playing.  Instead, they often featured modern art paintings on the covers.  During those years Becker and Fagan didn’t promote themselves or deal with the press much and Steely Dan’s image took on a life of its own based, amazingly, on their musical body of work.  Indeed the music, a rich and highly eclectic blend of sophisticated jazz voicings and rock phrasing presented in a very stylized pop format, became increasingly reflective of the times.

The late 1970’s were excessive and hedonistic, smarmy times in popular culture,  to be sure.  And Steely Dan’s songs epitomized the image of affluent, detached, self-absorbed artists spending no time on touring and obscene amounts of money on narcotics and studio sessions to make the record they heard in their heads.   Their music was the sound of sophisticated but perhaps tortured souls being high and making mistakes while pursuing their art, which is a timeless type of behavior.  Ironically, though they began with underground beatnik sensibilities, by the end of the ‘70’s they had moved into sounding like the very affluence and complacency they originally counteredBut, I digress.

Steely Dan’s set began with their horn and rhythm sections doing a crisp instrumental to warm up the crowd and prime the musical engines for a nearly 2 hour show.   The nucleus of the band then hit the stage featuring Fagen as emcee at center stage, wearing shades, and dressed in black behind his keyboard.  He was also never too far from his trusty melodica, which he played several different times in the show.  Just to his right was his long time co-founder and collaborator Becker on guitar.   With a bum leg for nearly 30 years, Becker sat on a stool by the drum riser periodically during the show.

Steely Dan jumped right into gear and played the whole of the Aja album in sequence for a little less than 40 minutes-because back in Aja’s day (1977) that’s about as much music as would fit onto a vinyl record.   It’s an amazing set of songs, with a wide range of sounds to account for onstage.  Hence, a large band was necessary and the entire band numbered 13 members onstage.   A four piece horn section (Michael Leonhart, Walt Weiskopf, Roger Rosenburg, and Jim Pugh), three angelic backup singers (Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle, and Catherine Russell), two guitars (Becker and John Herington), bass (Freddy Washington), drums (Keith Carlock), and 2 keyboardists (Fagen and Jim Beard).

Every song was faithfully recreated and because this was live, the essence of the Steely Dan sound was clearly heard. The songs on Aja all establish a mood immediately, whether with ethereal chords (“Aja,” “Deacon Blues”), a funky riff (“Black Cow,” “I Got the News”), or a very catchy sound (“Josie”).   The changes are busy and cascading, providing a whole lot of interesting terrain for the soloists to navigate.

Steely Dan’s songs sound the inimitable way they do because the horns and the backing vocals magnify certain elements of the song.  The horns worked their charm on the changes and the melodies and the backup singers expanded the vocal line to huge proportions.   The girls would harmonize or sing in unison as needed, accentuating phrases, words, or even syllables to clever affect.     At some points they provided contrast to Fagen’s uniquely thin voice, at others they inflated the whole vocal line into a big floating balloon of harmony.   In many ways the girls’ voices were a living, breathing set of horns themselves.

Steely Dan delivered a particularly fine version of “Josie” on Friday night. Rhythmically and lyrically,  it’s a deceptively sexy song, and featured some fine guitar playing from Becker and John Herington, who shone all night.   There is one memorable bit of harmony guitar towards the middle of the tune that the audience was just waiting for and it did not disappoint.  In a world of distorted screaming guitars, Becker avoided that cliche by playing clean and picking all the notes quite deliberately on nearly every song.  Even when he beefed up his signal, his sound kept all the sustain but none of the distortion — a vintage late ‘70’s tone, to be sure, but timeless because it is so clean.

“Deacon Blues” about a desperado beatnik going down in flames, snaked its way through the night air and also delivered the goods.    One thing about Steely Dan songs — it’s not often easy to hear all of the lyrics.   Certain phrases will jump out at and stick (for many years, even), begging the point of finding out the rest of the words. The entire set of lyrics to songs like “Deacon Blues” or “Black Cow” entice a listener to imagine any of many scenarios they may see in the song.   And that is one sure sign of some very good art.

After finishing Aja the band proceeded to mix favorites, rarities and newer material for the next hour and twenty minutes.   While many of the older Steely Dan tunes feature more straight ahead arrangements, it was entertaining to watch them get fleshed out with the horns and the backing vocals.   “Reelin’ in the Years” always had the structure to do well with the treatment and sounded great and so much bigger on Friday night…even before the showcase guitar solo.  Highlights of this part of the show included “Hey Nineteen,” “Show Biz Kids,” “Neighbor’s Daughter,” “Bodhisattva,” and “Kid Charlemagne,” and even “You Got The Bear.”   The band put all of these songs across with outstanding musicianship from every player.

In particular, guitarist Herington and drummer Carlock were turned loose in the second half of the show.   Herington matched all the subtle precision of the original solos on “Bodhisattva,” and “Reelin in the Years.”   These are vigorous guitar solos over some busy chord changes and he nailed them.   It must be a kick for a hot young jazz drummer like Keith Carlock, whose chops simply abound, to play in a band like Steely Dan.   Their music offers pop structure and many layers of chordal texture that give him all sorts of interesting musical spaces to fill and embellish .  His sound on Friday night was wound tight, ultra crisp and for all of the fills he got to add in, he didn’t come close to overplaying.

At the beginning of the evening Walter Becker stood onstage playing great guitar but looking quite stoic and perhaps a little detached.   During “Hey Nineteen” he came out of his shell to connect with the audience when he gave us a rather long, wry, and thoroughly entertaining monologue about baking soda, psychedelic aphrodisiacs, long lost bottles of tequila and, “Who does a guy have to screw to get laid in this town?”  It was the way he talked — the veteran, grizzled beatnik/hipster, still entertaining, cool, and engaging.  He could have been reciting the phone book and it would have worked.

Similarly, while Steely Dan’s music is beatnik inspired, meticulously arranged, subtle, cynical and subversive it actually does endure as timeless.   They have always made some very savory art from their own stew of pop, rock and jazz influences.  More power to them because it still sounds great and relevant…even if the wasted times of the late ‘70’s now seem simpler and more innocent by comparison to the present.  Who knew?

Friday’s show was opened by Hammond B-3 player Sam Yahel and his band.    Jazz played on a B-3 is a very soothing type of groove to listen to and their slot set the table for Steely Dan very tidily.

To see more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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