Who: Steely Dan
Where: The Beacon Theatre, Manhattan, New York City, USA
When: 21st October 2018
What: By Popular Demand
On the first days of booking tickets for this “popular demand” show, ticket-buyers were asked by Ticketmaster to write-in their requests for songs to be featured. Now those who booked on the first day were probably (for the most part) die-hard Dan fans who had in mind songs that they had seldom heard before. But if this was the case then, there was little evidence of it in the set that emerged with this more closely resembling a “Greatest Hits” show than two-hours of rarities and deep cuts. Now that is not to say that this wasn’t a wonderful show to see. This band are tighter than they have ever been. Older bands like this either barely tolerate being on the stage as each other (look at the recent Fleetwood Mac debacle) or they have grown close and closer still through years of musical and personal inter-action. The latter is the case with Steely Dan
Each of these Manhattan shows were opened by either a set from the Peter Bernstein Trio or the Peter Bernstein Quartet. The common factors being the presence of guitarist Bernstein, solid drumming from Jimmy Cobb and three quarters of an hour of straight-ahead jazz. What more could a Steely Dan audience want from a warm up band?
For it is that jazz element which sets Steely Dan apart from the flock of so-called “classic rock” bands who are touring the land playing shows these days. The whole classic album show has become common place and the keynote is nostalgia. Later albums by bands in this category may have proved perhaps to be better records but it is the album that these audience remembers from their teens and twenties that carry the day. So, Steely Dan’s residency at the Beacon will be highlighted by nights when “Countdown to Ecstasy”, “The Royal Scam”, “Aja”, “Gaucho” and Donald Fagen’s first solo album “The Nightfly” will be played in their entirety. “Two Against Nature” and Fagen’s most recent solo, “Sunken Condos” may enter into conversations about which Dan-related albums are the best but they won’t feature at all here – they came into being a little too late for those born in the early-Sixties.
But there are significant factors which make Steely Dan rise above the morass of revivalists out there and they are not the only ones. Bob Dylan, for example, determinedly follows his own muse. When he comes to the Beacon, he won’t be following the lead of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers in performing albums from the 1970s in their entirety. No, he eschews that practise and follows his own path. It doesn’t seem to matter to him whether his audience wants to hear “Gotta Serve Somebody”, “Scarlet Town” and “Pay in Blood” in new arrangements. He’s going to do them anyway.
The jazz element is the thing that gives Steely Dan the edge and helps them rise above their competitors. They flex their improvisational muscles and take the (old) songs into new places. This makes them a band with passionate loyalist fans and those with a weaker affiliation to all things Dan may struggle a little with what’s on offer. There will be more than a few fans here tonight who have tickets for all 9 shows and they will love every minute.
Given these factors, there is one peculiarity. The audience pays (on the whole) rapt attention to Mr Bernstein and his opening act. They clap at the end of each solo as a jazz audience would. But they don’t extend the same courtesy to the 2018 Steely Dan band (as they are called from the stage each evening). Sure, they clap many of the solos but the instrumental pieces that bracket the show are treated with lax attention – presumably because they take place before Fagen takes the stage and are therefore less “Steely Dan” than the rest of the set and that’s a shame.
Of course, Steely Dan shows these days have undergone a massive change. Walter Becker, the co-founder of this band, passed away just a little over a year ago and his absence on rhythm and occasional lead guitar and sardonic humour, is no longer there. A microphone is still set up where he used to play but the practice of Fagen using “Book of Liars” as part of the set to commemorate his passing is no longer part of the evening’s events. There is a little bad blood between Fagen and Becker’s family about money matters and for whether for that reason or some other the whisper is that current band members will be no-shows when a New York street is renamed in Becker’s honour in a few days’ time.
Fagen has gone on record to say that he would rather tour as “Donald Fagen and…” but the agents. the managers, and the venues are adamant that it is the words “Steely Dan” alone that fill the seats so for the time being the status quo will remain.
So, having set the scene, let’s turn to the music.
The opener is “Hallelujah Time”, a composition by Oscar Peterson which dates back to the 1960s. It’s a great piece for the Steely Dan orchestra to get to grips with. The four-piece horn section of Jim Pugh (trombone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Walt Weiskopf (alto saxophone) and Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax) are central to the arrangement but it is Keith Carlock on drums who drives the intro before the horns take over collectively and with their solos. Ironically, as mentioned earlier, the loudest applause given during this exemplary performance is when Mr Fagen walks on stage and sits down. Evidently, some of the audience have taken their eye off the ball and are just waiting for the greatest hits to roll in. That’s a shame.
Especially, when it is those self-same musicians who drive the opening better-known number the first of which tonight is Bodhisattva. The musical introduction is once again handled by the thudding weighty rhythm provided by Carlock but this time it is lead guitarist, Jon Herington who then takes things along with some great soloing as well as carrying the melody. Fagen’s vocals are joined by those of Catherine Russell, LaTanya Hall and Carolyn Leonhart, who are dubbed the Danettes (no doubt in honour of Ray Charles’ backing up singers – Charles is one of Fagen’s musical heroes). The song comes to a conclusion with Herington and the horns bouncing off each other in wild ways.
That nostalgia factor rears its head again in “Hey Nineteen” when Fagen mentions Aretha Franklin in the lyric and the recently passed “Queen of Soul” is given enthusiastic cheers by the audience. Let’s not remember that ‘Retha didn’t like that reference when the song came out. A mid-song great solo from Jon Herington gives way to a short rap from Fagen who is standing in at the point in the song his partner Becker used to speak. Instead of emphasising the “Cuervo Gold” as Walter did, Donald picks up on the tagline “Skate a little lower now”. He tells the audience that the band are going to play some things that “you like, by popular demand” before the trio of backing vocalists carry away the lines about “Cuervo gold…please take me along…”. Next for a solo is Jim Pugh on trombone who exuberantly closes out the song.
Jim Beard on keyboards, gentle percussion from Carlock and the thudding bass of Freddie Washington carry us into “Black Friday”. They are joined by Fagen on vocals and a Fender-style electric piano. Many of the arrangements tonight have been beefed up by Michael Leonhart and in this song, he gives new backing voice space to the ladies (Black. Black Friday comes) and two great solos for Herington.
A great sweep of piano notes from Beard moves us laconically into “Aja” and its familiar melody. The Danettes and the horn guys help out on percussion. On this number, Fagen plays a solo on that wind instrument which has keys running up the side (I’ve heard it described as a melodica and it makes a similar sound to a lyricon – I’m going to refer to it as a melodica). Next solo is an exquisite piece from Walt Weiskopf, but we must bear in mind that everything here is under-pinned by Jim Beard’s beautiful piano work. Fagen, now on Fender, and Beard keep busy while Keith Carlock undertakes an immense, towering drum solo which reminds us why he has such a lofty reputation in both the jazz and rock worlds.
Fagen announces that next is “a tune from Royal Scam” which takes the band into a 1-2-3-4 count and “Green Earrings”. This is another great workout opportunity for Herington and allows Fagen to deliver one of his most biting vocal moments. The conclusion of the song gives space for a delightful Hammond solo from Beard and then a baritone piece from Roger Rosenberg.
“We got a lot of requests for this one” says Fagen and indeed, they may have as he leads into the infrequently-performed “Bad Sneakers”. “Stopping on the avenue near Radio City” makes this an old hometown sort of number and a great choice to play at this live venue. The Danettes are on great accompanying form on the refrains and I’m losing count of how many memorable solos we have from Jon Herington. This is probably the song on the night, which sounds closest to its original “Katy Lied” form.
“Yow or as we used to say in the high-60s Yowie” said Fagen.
The band then shuffled into “Kid Charlemagne” with the house lights flashing up for the audience to sing along on “yes, there’s gas in the car” although few took the hint. Great harmonies again from Ms Leonhart and Ms Hall in particular here. The potential for marvellous guitar work here is obvious (and is accomplished) but we can’t pass this one by without mentioning the deep, deep rich bass work of Mr Washington. The song plays out to a “Get along, get along, Kid Charlemagne” from the ladies and an extended blowout from the horns.
A nod to David Palmer is followed by “Dirty Work” from “Can’t Buy a Thrill” with LaTanya Hall, Catherine Russell, and Carolyn Leonhart each taking turns on lead vocal. The horns play gently in the background to give this a distinctly different flavour from the original. It’s Michael Leonhart’s turn to take a breakout solo in the bridge before the girls return with a double portion of the chorus.
Then it’s time to get funky. Washington’s bass drives a very different arrangement of “Showbiz Kids” accompanied by Weiskopf on a plaintive sax before the rest of the band kicks in. Herington and busy drumming from Carlock are key to making this arrangement work and before Fagen begins to sing, you might not know which song this was. The Danettes weigh in on the first chorus and are then a constant echo to Donald’s lead vocals. Catherine Russell’s relish in singing “You know they don’t give a fuck about anyone else” must be seen to be believed.
“Coolio” said Fagen.
Another, rather more contemporary, jazz number (alright, jazz funk) is up next with a workout for the girls and the horns on The Crusaders’ “Keep That Same Old Feeling”. During this the band (Michael Leonhart, LaTanya Hall and Jon Herington) introduce the members of the band to the audience which allows several of them to soundcheck mini-solos after their name check.
After that comes “Peg” with a prominent horn section and the Danettes providing sweet sounds on the chorus. Freddie Washington dishes out more funk with a gritty bassline. By now, Connor Kennedy who had toured with Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers when Walter was ill had joined the line-up and was set to trade solos with Jon Herington in a “Joe Walsh / Don Felder” sort-of-way.
The band hadn’t brought a vibraphone with them but Jim Beard evidently had a sample which could mimic one on one of his keyboards which allowed for a delightful, easy on the ear rendition of another seldom-heard piece with “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number” being next out of the traps. Indeed, that vibraphone sound was more heavily featured than Victor Feldman had been on the original.
Then an evocative Fender Rhodes intro took us into “Josie”. The heart of this one was the rhythm section of Washington and Carlock with guitar solos from Kennedy and Herington.
Next up is a clap-a-long version of My Old School driven by the horns and with Kennedy and Herington the icing on top of a lite and fluffy cake. A real audience pleaser, just as we approach tonight’s conclusion.
And so, the stage clears in one of those moments before the inevitable encores. Encores? A rousing “Reelin’ the Years” and a bluesy “Pretzel Logic”. The first is concluded by a high-tempo drum solo from Carlock which is exuberant and energetic but a little at odds with the feel of the song. The second is driven by the guitars and comes to a conclusion with the Danettes singing “Days are gone forever, over a long time ago” a number of times.
The show ends with an instrumental version of the Joe Williams / Frankie Laine number, “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry” which is led by Walt Weiskopf on sax. Once again. a large part of the audience is drifting away as soon as Fagen leaves the stage. This is a conundrum all in itself.
So, a triumphant night for Steely Dan and much, more to come before they leave the Beacon.