Steely Dan are a couple of odd birds. I thought I’d gotten used to their live act, as tight and professional an outfit as you could possibly find, playing their songs note-perfect without much in the way of flourish or improvisation. Friday night at the Greek, after they wrapped a note-perfect run through the album Aja, the program got surprisingly loose. “What do you wanna do now?,” asked Donald Fagen, seemingly without a clue where the show was headed. To answer their own question, they vamped on “Hey Nineteen” for five minutes while Walter Becker, looking unusually schlubby and unkempt for the occasion, told a rambling story about his weirdest acid trip.
Deviance from soft jazz-rock normalcy is, of course, one of the Dan’s greatest assets, but they don’t usually bring it right out out onto the surface like that.
Many things about Steely Dan have remained essentially the same since around 2003, when they released what purported to be their final studio album, Everything Must Go. Much of the core band from that period remains in place, including lead guitarist Jon Herington, wonder drummer Keith Carlock and vocalist Carolyn Leonhart, and a couple of that album’s strongest songs remain in the setlist.
But something has shifted in that time. A decade of steady roadwork with essentially the same crew, the first prolonged period of live activity in their career, has given them something they’ve never had before: a visible comfort on the concert stage.
While Becker looks like an errant member of Phish who’s rolled out onto the wrong stage, t-shirt tucked haphazardly into his pants and scraggly hair resisting a weak attempt at a ponytail, Donald Fagen has polished up his act. Not only is he singing exceptionally well tonight, his recent participation in the Dukes Of September tour, in which Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs give their various interpretations of high-energy blue-eyed soul, seems to have given him a new persona at the front of the stage. He’s now something closer to a song and dance man than the dour, reluctant performer I first encountered in 2001, peering out from behind his shades, revealing nothing but teeth.
This new Fagen isn’t ashamed to dance to his own song if the mood strikes him, nor to call out cover tunes, with a romp through Lee Dorsey’s “Neighbor’s Daughter,” which gave Becker another excuse to ramble absurdities at length while introducing the band members. “Show Biz Kids” was played to the beat of “Cold Sweat”, and gradually built in intensity until it resembled something like Funkadelic.
The biggest shock of the night was the inclusion of the unreleased Aja outtake “You Got The Bear,” a rare revelation from a pair who have repeatedly denied the existence of anything worthwhile in their vault. Besides satisfying repeat attendees anxious to hear something new, it felt like a second chance at a lost opportunity.
That new onstage confidence definitely boosted the performance of Aja, arguably their masterpiece, and you won’t get far arguing against it. It’s the ultimate distillation of everything they ever got right, ethereal harmonies, dense, cryptic lyrics suggesting endless sinister possibilities, and catchy, soulful tunes that glide along like they’ve been coated with vaseline.
In performance, it picked up urgency without wandering out of its languid groove. “I Got The News,” a playful little ditty that may or may not be about a femme fatale that’s broken her lover’s legs for being a lousy lay, was the track most improved as a live number, Carlock riding the song’s push-pull tension amid vaporous harmonies from the trio of female singers at stage left. “Deacon Blues” remains an evocative stunner, a Bernard Herrman soundtrack for a day on the life of a working musician.
Even the makers of Yacht Rock recognize that Steely Dan were cut from a different cloth than any of the seventies artists considered to be their peer group. They had different goals, and a funny, dismissive attitude toward the stardom those peers went after like a pack of ravenous dogs. It’s just one of those successful collaborations that sometimes results when two deeply eccentric people run into each other and find a shared sensibility toward both music and the machine that produces it. So while it’s understandable that they avoided megatours in the prime of their creative life, it’s also gratifying to see them finally embrace their inner jive and whip it up like a real good-time band. Because we trust them, after all this time, to be genuine; like the titular characters of”Show Biz Kids”, you know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else.
Photo by Cifo aka Big Cif courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.