The house was full Friday night at the Cynthia Woods Pavilion, despite the fact that the band (such as it is) has released no music that could be termed “beloved” or even “popular” in more than 40 years. Sure, there are any number of acts who haven’t had a hit in decades playing the shed circuit this summer, but Steely Dan stands apart from them, in that founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and never set out to be rock stars. Far from it.
Always keeping a low profile, never appearing in gossip columns, and definitely not wrecking any hotel rooms, Becker and Fagen minded their own business, cranking out songs that merged rock and pop with a heavy dose of jazz, coupled with lyrics that might be called subversive. They were, as Rolling Stone termed them, “the thinking fan’s top 40 band.”
The only member of the original Steely Dan onstage Friday was vocalist / keyboard player Fagen. Becker went to the big jam session in the sky several years ago, but the band didn’t skip a beat. And therein lies the magic of Steely Dan. It has always been more a concept than a band. Like a chamber orchestra, the musicians in Steely Dan have come and gone, but the songs have remained the same.
These days, the trope that is often trotted out when classic rock bands are out on the road is the one that says, when the band announces, “here’s one from our new album,” half the audience goes for a beer and bathroom break. None of that nonsense with Steely Dan. Just one great song after another. “Black Friday,” “My Old School,” “Reelin’ in the Years.” On and on. “Kid Charlamagne,” “Peg,” “Dirty Work.” One masterpiece following the other, each one impeccably played, still with some room for a bit of improvisation. It seems that Fagen doesn’t want a perfect replication of the recording, but rather an honest performance of the song.
It is, for many reasons, unfortunate that Walter Becker is no longer with us. Despite the fact that Fagen may have been seen as the “star” of Steely Dan (relatively speaking) because he sang lead on most of their tunes, Becker’s contributions were beyond significant. Who knows who contributed what, but my money is on Becker for breathing life into the warped cast of characters who populate the best Steely Dan songs. Gino and Daddy G from “My Old School.” Lonnie, who “swallowed up all he found” in “The Boston Rag,” and the Unabomber-ish protagonist of “Don’t’ Take Me Alive.” Not to mention the LSD chemist on the run in “Kid Charlamagne” and the jewelry thief (we think) in “Green Earrings.”
Every member of the band is valued, every player gets a chance to step out front, and each is recognized for the contribution that is made.
Steely Dan has been lumped in with the Yacht Rock crowd, but this is both inaccurate and a disservice to the band. Sure, their music from the ‘70s goes down easy, like a piña colada on a hot day at an all-inclusive Mexican resort. But calling Steely Dan’s music Yacht Rock is like saying that Monet painted some pictures that look great on tote bags.
Friday night, Fagen had a large photo of Duke Ellington hanging on the front of his keyboard. Becker and Fagen said, over the years, that they took Ellington’s approach to heart, focusing, as the Duke did, on writing songs that featured the players in their orbit in the best light, making maximum use of their talents. This philosophy — giving their backing musicians a chance to shine — is consistently present in the current Steely Dan show. Every member of the band is valued, every member gets a chance to step out front, and each is recognized for the contribution that is made. No wonder these guys love to play in Steely Dan. The joy onstage was evident throughout the night.
The stagecraft of Steely Dan’s show was, relatively speaking, subdued. No pyro. No smoke machines. No disco ball. Just a group of musicians uniting to give their best and pay tribute to an incredible body of work.
Was it wild? No. Was it off the rails? No. Was it illuminating? Yes. Was it fun? Double yes. The members of the audience, most of whom seemed to be in that 50s to 60s range, were beyond satisfied, hearing great songs played impeccably, with plenty of brio and conviction. Would that more shows were like this. Say, Donald, could you guys hang out here for a couple of more days?