Monday, October 10, 2011
The Wiseacre Duos: Steely Dan, Part X, or Postscript
I concluded the Steely Dan portion of the WD series a few years back, yes. But on September 17th I had the privilege of attending my first live Dan show. How exciting it was to see Donald Fagen and Walter Becker with their ace backing band in New York City! At the Beacon Theatre, no less. We had great seats, only seven rows back on the right side. That blur above was my attempt at a shot with the flash turned off. It does not accurately reflect my point of view that night, as my sole libation was a Stella Artois. Well, there was a Kirin at the restaurant before. Annnd, a Guinness on the PATH train over from Jersey.....
My show was part of a weeklong stint that included specialized sets featuring entire albums, all requests, and my night, a "rarities"("the unreleased, the mythic, the reborn, the rarely-if-ever-heard; on this numinous Night of Nights, all will be revealed") program. The Beacon is significant as it has long been a favorite of Fagen and Becker's, especially Fagen, who also performed the Rock and Soul Revue concerts there in the early 1990s.
The Beacon was constructed in 1929, with a rich history of musical acts to follow. The auditorium fell into serious disrepair over the years, in the 2000s becoming serious with crumbling ceilings and broken chairs. A remodel in the last year has renewed its viable place in the NYC venue scene.
Despite my being a huge Dan fan, I had never attended a concert. As you may know, the guys have toured yearly since the 90s, and there were many opportunities, though school and plain old bad timing always prohibited my attendance. Often, they played a date while I was away or just returning from a trip. Plus, the live recordings I had heard and watched online were less than enticing. Their Alive in America live album was similiarly uninspiring.
But the wait was well worth it. After a nice warm up by keyboardist Sam Yehel and saxophonist Joe Lavano, the Steely Dan ensemble ("Miles High Big Band") came out: Michael Leonhart, Jim Pugh, Roger Rosenberg, and Walt Weiskopf on horns, Joe Herington on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass, Jim Beard on piano and keyboard, and a very youthful looking Keith Carlock on drums. Then Fagen and Becker appeared with their 3 backup singers, Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizell, and Catherine Reussell. "Your Gold Teeth" opened the set, confirming at least part of a bet I had with my 2 companions at a Chinese restaurant prior to showtime. There was something hypnotic and sexy about the rhythm of that song, the combination of it and the gyrating bods of the gorgeous background singers, lately called The Embassy Brats. I knew it would be a good night.
I was consistently amused as I watched Fagen, appearing behind his keyboard as if a puppet, with his arching shoulders and mouth wide open nearly 100% of the time. His voice has really changed since the 70s and even 00s; a much higher, whiny register. He changed up the familiar phrasing of just about every song, which you expect in concert. I was fine with it save some odd echo effect used on the chorus of "Hey 19". Fagen occasionally walked out to play his melodica (strap-on keyboard), revealing a hilariously misbuttoned grey shirt. He appeared as if to have rolled out of bed. I thought the guy wore sharp dark suits for his shows?!
And Becker? Man, has this guy's appearance gone to seed. His gut was awe inspiring, stretching his dark T-shirt to some kind of limits. He stood in one spot and basically noodled through the songs, adding a good bluesy solo once in a while. He stepped up to the mic to do a rambling monologue during "Hey 19", filled with the sort of cheesy and occasionally ribald ranting that you might expect of him.
The set wasn't ALL rarities. The old chestnuts like Aja's "Peg", the title track (with Carlock's exhausting stickwork, proving he is more than worthy to the throne of Steve Gadd), and "Josie" were among the songs, as were Countdown to Ectasy's "My Old School" and Can't Buy a Thrill's "Reelin' in the Years", which despite my years of overexposure to it, sounded pretty good. I had heard they replaced Eliot Randall's famous guitar solo with a horn chart for earlier live versions; I'm happy to report that was not the case this night.
So the questions were many as to what "rarities" would be played. Deep album cuts? One of the many tracks recorded but discarded for the old albums? Demos? Alternate versions of album cuts? Fagen announced after the second or third number that all of the above were in store for us. I was quite pleased that the infamous "The Second Arrangement", a song intended for the Gaucho album and accidentally erased by an engineer, was performed. As Fagen said, it would probably be the only time ever. I looked around and was also pleased to see a few peeps were mouthing the words along with Fagen and the trio of lovelies.
"I Got the Bear" is a Gaucho Outtake that was also performed, a really groovy tune that continues to baffle for its exclusion on that album. Most of the audience were unfamiliar but seemed to really dig it. Of the album cuts rarely performed were "Pearl of the Quarter" from Countdown to Ecstacy and "Dr. Wu" from Katy Lied. The original version of Two Against Nature's "Jack of Speed" was sung by Becker, quite incoherently. The keyboard arrangement was very different with a much faster tempo. At times, it was a bit reminiscent of Bernie Worrell's keyboards during Talking Heads' STOP MAKING SENSE shows! The version on the 2vN album is far better. It was interesting, but as one of my companions also stated, "a mess".
There were two real surprises that night. First was "American Lovers", a song penned by Fagen and Becker for another artist when they were staff writers at ABC Records (before they formed SD) It seemed not a soul in the Beacon was familiar with it. It had a real late 60s sound, and despite some strong vocals from the ladies, Fagen really nailed it when he said, "it was a hippie song written about 5 years too late."
The second came during the encore. "This All Too Mobile Home"(!), the song they used to close their concerts back in the earlier 1970s. I was floored. I could feel the disappointment and disbelief of the audience, clearly expecting "FM" or something. I was thrilled, however, and their version was just as rousing as the mp3s I've heard online of the old concerts. Nice "A Summer Place" type final part, too. In true Steely Dan fashion, Fagen stated, "this is the track WE wanna finish with". God bless those guys. And maybe hire a wardrobe wrangler for 'em, willya?