Steely Dan Opens Up The Vault On Their Latest Tour

Irvine Verizon Amphitheater

Irvine, CA

July 19, 2006

The Steely Dan brain trust, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, both original New Yorkers, are a truly unique brand of pop music composers. From their surprisingly successful first LP, “Can’t Buy A Thrill,” featuring the Latin rhythm flavored hit, “Do It Again” and the straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll 1972 AM radio staple, “Reelin’ In The Years,” to which evolved over the next five years into a form of pop music that embraced jazz music as a foundation for their pop whimsy. The seriousness of their now jazz musicianship undertakings and their adoration of pop and R&B stylings culminated with the release of their 1977 classic LP, “Aja.”

But it was Becker’s and Fagan’s pop sensibilities that made Steely Dan the kings of both top 40 AM and AOR FM radio music in the 1970’s. Every record released during that decade was an undeniable hit. After firing their original band after their third album, “Pretzel Logic” (they had already begun to bring in outside musicians for the recording), which included their biggest hit to date, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” Becker and Fagan decided to stop touring and relocated to Los Angeles because of the city’s plethora of highly skilled studio musicians who could satisfy the duo’s creative vision of merging pop and jazz music. The resulting triumphs were, in order, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho.

Walter Becker and Donald Fagan of Steely Dan bring out the funk. Photo: Richard L. Barrett III.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagan of Steely Dan bring out the funk on their current summer tour. Photo: Richard L. Barrett III.

With that short historical explanation aside, the Dan decided for this, their current tour, to mine the vaults of their lesser known catalogue in place of the standard fare of their AM and FM hits. That is not to say the hits were ignored. “Josie,” “Peg” and concert staple, not to mention groundbreaking song, “Aja,” all from the latter’s self-titled lp, plus rousing versions of “Don’t Take me Alive” and the show-ending “Kid Charlemagne” from 1978’s “The Royal Scam” lp, as well as the two hits from their last run of hit making records, “Hey Nineteen” and “Time Out of Mind” from Gaucho.

Then came the surprises: The show itself opened with the accompanying musicians, the horn section, bass, second lead guitar and a backup keyboardist playing a furious up tempo straight jazz number announcing to the 17,000 plus crowd that these guys were up to Steely Dan’s notorious expectations that the musicians they hire for both studio and touring work were one’s of the highest musical chops. This was going to be a night to remember.

When Becker and Fagan took the stage, the band broke into the furious paced “Bodhisattva” and proceeded to intersperse amongst the hits chestnuts from long ago, including “Show Biz Kids,” “Dirty Work,” “Green Earrings,” the jazzy syncopated, “I Got The News” and a very funky version of “My Old School.” Ignored were previous tour staples, “Deacon Blues,” “Black Cow” and their seminal hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”

The next highlight came during the bridge in “Hey Nineteen.” As the band stayed in the groove, Fagan addressed the crowd, informing them that his trumpet and trombone players, before the show started, got into a fight over a girl. An obvious impetus as to how they would solve their differences: By performing a horn “blow-off” that was an expertly done give and take session, particularly on use of their muted effects, with Fagan answering their sounds with an, “Uh-huh, okay, I see.” It was a pure jazz, free for all moment before the horn players effortlessly rejoined the pop beat when Fagan asked the women in the audience what the name was of a particular brand of Tequila, which of course segued into the bridge’s chorus of “Hey Nineteen,” “Per Quervo Gold/ The fine Columbian/ Make tonight a wonderful thing.” Corny? Yes. Inspiring? Most definitely! The crowd ate it up.

The audience also seemed to approve the band’s decision to perform their funkier R&B songs as opposed to their grooving, smooth jazz tunes. Finally, the encore surprise song on a night chock full of them, “FM,” drew an appreciative applause as the band slowly left the stage in the reverse order that they first appeared when the show started, leaving the jazz combo for last, reminding the audience that, for Steely Dan, it was always about the music.

Of one disappointing note, the band ignored their last two cd releases save for one song, the incestuous themed “Cousin Dupree” from their Grammy-winning best album, “Two Against Nature.” Nothing was played off of their latest release, “Everything Must Go.” Which is the dilemma Steely Dan faces as they now tour regularly, how do you keep the fans happy and yourself interested when, in the whole of your body of work, there are very few clunkers? The answer, one assumes, is you keep touring as long as it seems viable (and a 17,000 plus audience certainly makes it seem so) and you change your set list to keep things fresh. On this account, Steely Dan certainly did so, tossing aside their safe groove songs in order to flex their capable music muscle on their more R&B funk and syncopated jazz arrangements.

A very nice surprise in the course of the evening was opening act Michael McDonald’s performance, himself a former back up singer for Steely Dan. His rich, slightly gruff tenor was in good form as he performed his memorable hits from his solo career and during his stint as the lead singer of the Doobie Brothers, along with a few decidedly less inspired offerings from his new homage to Motown cd. He then joined the Dan onstage midway through their act, adding his unmistakable tenor that helped make pop music classics out of “Peg” and “Josie.”

As Fagan pleaded in “Hey Nineteen” with the Per Quervo Gold Tequila to “Make tonight a wonderful thing,” indeed the evening did turn into just that.

**** Stars

Richard L. Barrett III

Richard L. Barrett, III is a writer with a BA in English Literature, who loves to write about the human condition