About a lifetime ago, my friend, Andrew, and I went to Leeds for the day and in the course of our shopping I brought home every Steely Dan album that had been released to that point, that I didn’t already own. By the time I had worked through albums like Pretzel Logic I was a fan for life. Indeed, Katy Lied joined Van Morrison and Bob Dylan in seeing me almost single-handed through some very tortured teenage years.
Flash forward to 2015 and my wonderful opportunity as I was invited to fly out to the U.S. and cover their residency at the Beacon in New York. I’d seen them a number of times but to see them on home territory playing with imagination and verve — well, this is the stuff that dreams are made of. So let’s take a look at their final night:
Who: Steely Dan
What: rockabye gollie angel tour 2015: “The Most Unforgettable Night of Whatever – Featuring Spectacular Musical Guests, Glorious Tunes and Riffage, and Whatever the Party Calls for! “
When: October 17th, 2015
Where: Beacon Theatre, New York, New York, USA
Tonight’s opening act was Madeleine Peyroux, who was a little of a departure from previous nights, not only in terms of being a vocal act but also having a higher profile than the smaller jazz outfits that the Dan normally gift their support slots to. This meant the venue filled up earlier, there was less disruption and everyone was locked in for the music.
Ms Peyroux produced an excellent set balancing her own material (including a track she co-wrote with Walter Becker) with covers of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. She stretches at the seams of the melodies and structures of the compositions, like all good jazz. A particular highlight was her version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” which originated on Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album, but this was a very different interpretation from Mr Zimmerman’s original. She was joined on stage by various members of Steely Dan as songs required, including Jon Herington and Jim Beard, which meant there was even more reason for the audience to give her their rapt attention. Her tone and control were golden and she was clearly enjoying herself.
But all good things must come to an end and after the designated 30 minutes or so, Madeleine was saying good night in order that the stage could be cleared and reset for the main course.
As on previous nights, the opener was Teenie’s Blues with the rhythm section of Freddie Washington, Keith Carlock and Jim Beard getting things started before the trumpet of Michael Leonhart and the tenor sax of Walt Weiskopf began to add the central melody. Then the guitar of Jon Herington, the baritone sax of Roger Rosenberg and the trombone of Jim Pugh slinked into the mix before everyone took a step back to allow Rosenberg to solo.
Next, Weiskopf took his opportunity to explore the theme before all four horns jumped back on board. Then a solo from Leonhart which was wild and gained rousing applause before Pugh kept up the energy with his time in the spotlight and then a short solo from Carlock led back into the central melody. I need to emphasise this opening number tonight because for many other acts this would be just an instrumental prelude but for Steely Dan this was an exploration of deep jazz which struck even those who weren’t prepared for it right, right back in their seats to listen.
But no matter how far we were set back in those seats I don’t think any of us were prepared for what happened next.
Back in 1974, there was an evening in Santa Monica which has passed into Steely Dan folklore. It was the evening when Jerome Aniton sometime roadie cum truck driver cum road manager cum whatever else was required (which we probably don’t need to go into here) got himself loaded (or pretended to be, I’m guessing the former) and took to the stage to be an impromptu M.C. to introduce the band. As these things work out, someone was there to bootleg the show and a cassette soon began to change hands… and for once the band liked and approved what they heard. So much so that when, in 1980, they needed a b-side for a single they authorised the version of Bodhisattva that was played that night with Mr Aniton’s MC work in tact. Part of his improvisation went something like this (to give you a flavour):
“And you can also… Aw, you little ol’ purty… purty, little purty one, Uh!
If he ain’t here tonite, Uh! You can tell him, forget it too, you know.
Because, Mister… Whatever, is here tonite
He gonna get down tonight, Brother
He gonna get with it
He gonna give you something that Santa Monica that never had.
If it good to ya, it got to be good for ya!
Right on! Yeah!
And one thing I can tell ya, Brother. He’s here tonight.
Mr. Magnificent one is here… The Beautiful one is here…
Hahaha, you little ‘ol purty one, you here too
You know… Whatever.
Here is the Magnificent one
The one and only one
Mr… Steely… Dan… Whatever!”
In the 1990s, this then became a track on the album, Citizen Steely Dan, and tonight it became a recorded opening to the rest of the show. And the reason that this was the Great Night of Whatever (more on this in a moment). The pre-night publicity had said there would be special guests (plural). In the flesh there was only one guest but it was good to know that Mr Aniton was along for the ride in spirit.
After all of that and without missing a beat, Donald Fagen led the band into Bodhisattva just like he had done all those years ago. The phenomenon of rock’n’roll is that it has stayed alive and pertinent much longer than any of these guys thought it would and whilst the musicians have aged, the music on evenings like this still sounds vibrant. After the opening bars of the song an announcement came over the house system “Special guest tonight: Mr Denny Dias” and Dias one of the original members of this combo made it out to centre stage. Whilst Fagen and Becker have a strange air of otherworldly cool about them, Mr Dias looks like a guy you could have passed on 59th street without a second glimpse. Gray beard, flat cap. But when it came to the first of his two solos, it was obvious why he was a good fit for tonight. He played up a storm. Amusingly, the guys on lights didn’t know who to pick out when he began to solo and Fagen had to point towards him with vigour to get the light to move over from Herington who was busy playing the rhythm part to the featured player.
Denny Dias disappeared back into the wings as Walt Weiskopf brought us a short solo which led into a polished Black Cow. The mannerisms in Donald Fagen’s voice during this one barely seem to have changed in the intervening years and he added to his role on the song with a great keyboard solo in the middle section.
Anyone expecting this night of “whatever” to mean that the band had entirely torn up the setlist from other nights was going to be disappointed as just like the night before, the band rolled from Black Cow to Aja and from Aja to Hey Nineteen. It’s clear that Fagen still enjoys singing Aja as you hear in the way that he wraps his tonsils around “they just don’t care” in the opening lines extending out the notes as he goes. Jim Beard contributed fine piano work once more. One of the signs of how good a concert this is, is how easy they make the complex melodies and interaction on this seem. Donald Fagen’s melodica solo was followed by brief solos from both Herington and Becker before the melodica took up the lead again. Whilst Mr Fagen was wrapping up his contribution, Walt Weiskopf was picking his way forward from the backline to the front of the stage from where he delivered a powerhouse of a solo, accompanied by Keith Carlock and dramatic flashing of the stage lights.
The whole audience (or at least those who had seen the Dan before) must have thought they knew what was coming when Walter Becker stepped up to the mic in the mid-section of Hey Nineteen – his usual rap about Cuervo Gold, right? But, no. This was, as promised, a different night as he reflected on Mr Aniton all those years ago…
This is, indeed, the most unforgettable night of whatever,
That’s almost, this close, to being a kind of spiritual kind of thing
You know what I mean
And then again
It’s maybe just whatever
Bring it on
I don’t care
Like 25 bucks … whatever
A thousand bucks… whatever
Two and a half hours… whatever
175 horsepower whatever
Y’know .. either way
Cause that’s kind of a spiritual thing too
And then of course there’s the incredible case of our former M.C. of the night slash truck driver of the 70s Mr Jerome Aniton and he is indeed the great, great fatherly spirit of the Whatever
He’s the one who brought us to Whatever
He took us right there to Whatever
And we just got off the bus there and we never came home
We never came home from Whatever
And it was a good thing too for we’ve had a good, good time in Whatever
And we know you have too
I know all of us have……..
And so he went on in those sardonic tones that are all Mr Becker’s own until the girls were ready to sing about Jose’s best. After the vocalising it was over to Jim Pugh for a fine solo which brought the number to a close.
Black Friday was a little more perfunctory but saw Denny Dias rejoin the onstage ensemble to add that third guitar which took the song in a different direction than it had been modelled in the night before when it was a little more piano and keyboard led. The song concluded with Fagen and the Danettes echoing each other on a chant of “Black Friday comes”.
If the show lacked anything, it was the shaking up of the set list, the “random shit” as Donald Fagen pronounced it and said would be coming. Indeed, this was a very similar set as before but there were a few differences. One of these was the next song, Pearl of the Quarter, seldom played and I have to confess probably one of my least favourite Dan songs. It dates back to Countdown to Ecstasy, from a time when the band was less developed in its jazz chops and even though he played on that album Denny didn’t stick around for this one. The only sweetener was the fact that I’d not heard it live before and that the mix of the 4 vocalists gave it a topping that the album version doesn’t have. It concluded with solos from Herington and Becker before heading back into the final chorus and the wrap.
Walt Weiskopf took centre stage for the radically different version of Show Biz Kids which I talked about in my review of the previous night’s show. Tonight, Walter Becker delivered a great guitar solo before Donald Fagen headed into “After closing time…” which he continued to noodle on whilst the vocalist and then the Danettes sang counterpoint on the second verse. It is a great arrangement which relies heavily on Freddie Washington’s bass line, and the female vocals but mainly on the artistry and forethought of the two principals who are so reluctant to sit on a pat hand.
If this version of Show Biz Kids is a tour-de-force than it led promptly into Godwhacker which had been a highlight of the prior night’s show. This is the closest that Fagen gets to looking like a conventional rock lead vocalist. He stood at the mic with his melodica on his shoulder, twitching the mike back and forth between lines and phrases. In the middle of the song, Mr Fagen moved to the back of the stage, facing the horn section, and all five wind instruments blew up a storm, individually and corporately before Fagen returned back to the lead mic to instruct us to “be very, very quiet”. Golden. Whoever knew that rock could go to places like this.
I mentioned that the songs from the earlier albums quite often go in a simpler mode and this can be said for Dirty Work which originally was sung by short-lived band member David Palmer on Can’t Buy A Thrill but is now a vehicle for the Danettes to show off their vocal mannerisms. First part of the opening verse went to Carolyn Leonhart who took the vocal up a scale on “you’re afraid to pay the fee..” for no other reason than she seemed to enjoy it. Then Cindy Mizelle took over changing the sense of the lyric for the first time by exchanging “guy” for “girl” and the first time hearers realise that it is the ladies who are now the fools and the victims of their own behaviour. The next verse goes to Paulette McWilliams before Carolyn takes the final section. All the Danettes share the choruses and then it’s time for a particularly sweet trumpet solo from Michael Leonhart which he played one-handed to allow freedom of movement to cup his mute as he needed to.
Next up was Babylon Sisters introduced by a steady-as-a-rock drum rhythm from Keith Carlock. The second verse was sung over some thoughtful ‘bone work from Jim Pugh and the second chorus was accompanied by Walter Becker’s guitar work before Pugh picked it up again prior to the third verse. The Danettes got perhaps the loudest cheer for the shapes they threw whilst they sang “you gotta shake, baby, you gotta shake it” and I guess they knew why.
Denny Dias was back again for Green Earrings but this time his rust showed a little as he was a little too dependent on the lead sheets on that music stand that was just in front of him. Herington took up the slack with a great solo. Then it was over to Jim Beard for some Hammond-esque tearing up on the keyboard, preparing the way for yet another great solo from Weiskopf. The triangle of guitarists closed it out as they exchanged licks.
Then it was back over to Walter Becker for another take on Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More whilst Dias headed backstage once more. The song suits Becker’s singing / talking drawl and he added in a good lead solo with Herington providing a tight rhythm whilst WB was singing the verses.
Yet another memorable Walt Weiskopf solo (I’d lost count by now) led into Gaucho with the horns and the Danettes providing a great grounding for Fagen’s bitter and barbed, sarcastic lead vocal. Then it was back over to Weiskopf who continued to play up a storm before Herington took up the melody and then Walt gave us another short snatch of his pipes before Fagen took up the narrative again… “what I told you back down the line…”.
The funky I Want to Do Everything (For You) was led by the Danettes and Fagen’s keyboard work and worked better than before. This time Becker’s Gibson Flying V (still rather incongruous) gave us a nice snatch of a solo as he began to make introductions “to the few audience members who aren’t from New York… from the few band members who aren’t from New York”. First to the plate was some deep, bass growls from Paulette McWilliams and then each member of the band took their turn to improvise or scat on the Joe Tex number. Carlock and Washington lit up the house, Becker alleged that Carolyn Leonhart was the little ol’ purty one that Jerome Aniton was speaking of all those years ago and Becker and Fagen’s names only had to be mentioned to be drowned out in adoration.
The band next turned their attention to that pair of shorter numbers from Aja: Peg and Josie. Denny now entered, again, stage right and remained for the rest of the show. Walter Becker took the solo whilst Mr Leonhart helped out percussion on tambourine. Just to prove he didn’t need the help, Keith Carlock gave us a cascade of rolls around the kit before the tune was drawn to its conclusion. We were now, however, at the slightly more predictable end of the show. No Mike McDonald popping up to provide the harmonies on Peg and less variations from the script in terms of improvisation. Anyone expecting any last minute huge surprises was going to be disappointed but, to be honest, it must have been very hard to be disappointed with a show like this.
The next pair, as before, were My Old School and Reelin’ in the Years but without the tinny mic sound that had hindered Fagen’s best efforts the night before. Again, these were the crowd-pleasers delivered straight from the hip with just a great solo from Herington, twin rhythms guitars and some enthusiastic if not exactly coordinated clapping from the crowd to set them apart from the originals.
The show (proper) was brought to a close by a fulsome, high-energy solo from Keith Carlock and the band headed backstage for the inevitable recall.
The stomping and the clapping and the shouting, the whistling and the wailing brought them back for Kid Charlemagne where the audience even found a reason to cheer that there was, indeed, “gas in the car”.
Before we spilled out into the night, there was just time for a run through Nelson Riddle‘s The Untouchables Theme which closed out a classic show just like it used to do on TV.
Well, if it was down to me, I would set up another run of these shows and bring in the mics and mobile recording studio or whatever you need these days and have a box set in the stores (or on the internet) before next summer – because at this moment Steely Dan have lightning in a bottle or some such cliché and this should be captured for the ages before it is too late.
Call me an enthusiast.