I don’t make it to many concerts these days. I hate crowds, and most of my favorite artists and bands are either dead or long since retired from touring.
But when you find out your favorite band of all time is playing a show two hours away, you go. For me, that was Steely Dan at the opulent Fox Theatre in Detroit on June 27, 2013. Not even my own conspicuousness as a mere child amidst a sea of boomers (seriously, I may have been the only person under 45 in the audience) was going to dampen my enthusiasm.
I grew up listening to a fair share both classic rock and jazz, and I tend to gravitate toward music with thick harmonies and oddball chord progressions. I’ll pass on almost any “guy with guitar” singer-songwriter (with the standard exception for Paul Simon), but pianos and horns and funky chords get me every time.
So when Pandora started pushing me toward Steely Dan during my early college years and I started exploring their oeuvre for myself, I fell down a very, very deep jazz-rock rabbit hole.
Although many of Steely Dan’s songs are built on more or less standard rock and blues frames, the chord voicings, harmonic arrangements, and solos often owe more to bop icons like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus than the Beatles or the Stones. Angular shifts and jazzy substitutions are the rule rather than the exception.
Though nominally a “band,” Steely Dan proper is really just the songwriting partnership of singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker. Rather than settling on a consistent lineup, the duo cherry-picked musicians for their albums on a track-by-track basis, pulling the best rock, blues, and jazz players from around the country into the studio to play their compositions.
If the players they brought in couldn’t cut it, Fagen and Becker brought in other players. Famously, as many as 7 professional session players attempted (and failed) to provide a satisfactory guitar solo to the 1977 hit “Peg” before Fagen and Becker approved Jay Graydon’s performance.
That relentless perfectionism is a big reason why, 35 years after their commercial peak and 10 years since their last studio album, Steely Dan is still such an incredible live act. The 11-piece band Fagen and Becker drafted for the 2013 tour includes a number of independently acclaimed soloists, composers, session players, clinicians and teachers in their own right. The band was unwaveringly tight all night long, and each performer was given multiple opportunities to take the spotlight.
I was especially impressed with four. Walt Weiskopf’s graceful improvisations on tenor saxophone featured prominently throughout the night; lead guitarist Jon Herington’s tasty riffs recalled the original recordings without copying them. Drummer Keith Carlock’s boundless energy and rhythmic creativity amazed, while Jim Pugh gave a performance neither my father (my concert companion) nor I were previously aware was even possible on trombone.
Though the proficiency of the band was never really in question, the biggest concern I had going into the show was whether the 65-year-old Fagen, sitting behind a Fender Rhodes piano for most of the evening, still had the chops as Steely Dan’s lead singer.
It was, admittedly, a little rough at first. Fagen’s bright, nasal tenor has thinned a bit with age, and his high end isn’t quite as sturdy as it once was. Early in the show he seemed to be reaching, coming in a touch flat on some of the sustained high notes. Fortunately, by the third or fourth song his voice had warmed up and he was hitting the peaks with much more accuracy and fluidity.
The 20-song set included selections from eight of Steely Dan’s nine studio albums as well as a few covers, including a smashing rendition of Gerry Mulligan’s “Blueport” to open the show.
Casual attendees might have been disappointed that the duo’s only Billboard Top 10 singles, “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” were absent from the program. But there were still plenty of crowd-pleasing numbers to go around, including the ambitious title track from Aja (featuring two mesmerizing drum solos from Carlock, plus Fagen wandering the stage with a melodica) and fan favorites like “Black Friday” (in which a crooked stockbroker plans to make his fortune before the impending crash), “Hey Nineteen” (in which an aging playboy despairs over the generation gap), and “Josie” (which borrowed a bit of Beethoven for its solo introduction by Fagen on Fender Rhodes). The rousing performance of “Bodhisattva,” a send-up of rich, shallow Westerners looking for quick-fix Eastern enlightenment, was arguably the high point of the show.
The band also dug up some lesser-known cuts for the diehard fans, most notably a cleverly re-worked arrangement of “Razor Boy” (an 1973 album track that, according to Fagen, is being played live for the first time ever this year) featuring the band’s female backing singers on 3-part harmony lead.
True, taking the blinders off for a moment, one or two songs stumbled—“Monkey in Your Soul,” featuring Becker on a rare lead vocal, was one of the few deep cuts that probably should have been left on the original album. But the pace never flagged for more than a few minutes at a time during this hyper-speed revue of the band’s catalog.
The band cooked, and once Fagen found his vocal groove the Detroit audience was treated to more than two hours of that unmistakable blend of 70s rock, bebop jazz, old-time rhythm and blues, and collegiate cynicism that has been Steely Dan’s calling card for 40 years and counting.
It’s unclear how much longer the aging Fagen and Becker will realistically be able to continue touring—“We’re old!” proclaimed Fagen, almost apologetically, after the encore—but according to this admittedly very biased fan, there’s no question that, in 2013, they’ve still got it. Here’s hoping they swing back around in 2014 or 2015 so I can see them at least one more time.