What struck me about seeing Steely Dan live – something I guess I knew already but it felt remarkable to actually see and hear it taking place, being shaped – was the bubble that this band’s music exists in; the bubble that Fagen and Becker’s music occupies, floats around in – impervious.
There have been influences – but it’s more about influences on the players than on the sound. The Steely Dan sound has been shaped by Fagen and Becker – it’s their vision. They own it; their stamp is on every sound that can be found within their music. Search the folds, you’ll find them. They can’t always play it but they determine and define how to say it – using other musicians as a painter might change brushes, or colours; or indeed might switch from painting on canvas to corrugated iron.
The Steely Dan sound is immaculate – but it’s also filthy. There’s the wry subversion in the lyrics, the playfulness in the stage-personas of both Becker and Fagen. There are tongues in cheeks. And if there are not hearts on sleeves there’s certainly a feeling of this musical being standing proud. There’s a spine. And there’s a razor-sharp wit.
But what was so fascinating about watching the band performing live – these two old heads, two great (arguably underrated) songwriters in charge of this phenomenal live unit – was that the band performs nerd-music for music-nerds – and the very same band pumps out big ole pop hits. Sometimes it’s the same song. Take Peg – it’s a sharp, cool pop song. But there’s a lot happening in that groove and the melody. I talked about this in my review at the time – songs that are constantly modulating; just as a musical motif feels like it’s been done it’s doubled or done-away with. The band moves on – but takes the audience with it.
I’ve seen so many amazing performances from so many musicians but the Steely Dan live experience blew me away. It was pretty much as close to perfect as could be.
And there were so many stars in this show. The songs – of course. Becker and Fagen, obviously. But drummer Keith Carlock very nearly stole the show. He certainly was the driving force behind every song – working hard to nail it down, his command of jazz, funk and rock was flawless. His touch precise, sincere – capable of ghosting so many drumming greats that left their stamp on the Steely Dan sound (Purdie, Gadd, Marotta) as well as leaving his own indelible mark.
Similarly, the guitarist Jon Herington was a class act – recreating parts played by Larry Carlton with relative ease. Showcasing his own tasty licks too.
The horn section, the backing singers, the bass player – every single musician on stage was a class act. That should be the case – you’re paying $100+ and you’re watching a band with a legacy to honour, protect and serve. It should be a given – but this really was a super-sharp band.
Wonderful that the music geeks could sit back and analyse, chin-stroke, enjoy (marvel at the inclusion of Green Earrings) and those just wanting to boogie along to My Old School or Dirty Work or Reelin’ In The Years could do that. And, as I said before – plenty of people could do both.
I’ve thought about this show a lot – the level of precision and the pursuit of perfection from Becker and Fagen. It’s an amazing body of work they’ve created – songs from 1976’s The Royal Scam didn’t sound a quarter of a century older than songs from 2000’s Two Against Nature (beyond, perhaps, an extra level of familiarity).
That’s an incredible conviction, an amazing focus. This duo writes, records and produces music that exists in its own bubble – it’s seemingly influenced only by itself. In that sense Steely Dan is self-perpetuating. Quite happy to flirt with the mainstream, quite happy to be ignored. You get the sense that Fagen and Becker write to amuse and please themselves – that they’ve amassed a following is quite beside the point. But, you watch the show and they’re certainly catering to their audience/s.
In some ways I doubt I’ll see a more rewarding show. It ticked every box for me – I was excited in the lead up to the show. I was in awe of the show and I swiftly returned to all the albums – albums I thought I knew inside out. I started finding new hooks, new tunes to focus in on.
And Kid Charlemagne. What an encore!
All of this seems bittersweet now – of course – but all the more reason to celebrate nabbing the chance to see them when I did. Fagen’s voice was a bit poked, sure. That just didn’t even matter. He still had the tone, conveyed the sense – he’d just lost a bit of the strength. And it was never about that anyway.
This started as a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook Page