Saturday, June 21, 2008
I got the news
Here is the setlist from Steely Dan's performance tonight at the Beacon Theatre:
Instrumental intro/The Fez
The Royal Scam
I Got the News
Everything You Did
Two Against Nature
New Frontier [from Donald Fagen's "Nightfly"]
Gaucho [lead vocal by Walter Becker (!!!!)]
Parker's Band [lead vocals by backup singers]
Don't Take Me Alive
As you can see, the gig was totally packed with obscurities, which was pretty much cool by me, though I definitely heard some grumbling in the crowd. Taking a bathroom break during Parker's Band--a weird, glitzy bebop satire from "Pretzel Logic" that I've never gotten into--I heard a woman on her way out to the lobby whine, "When are they going to play something that anyone's ever heard?"
As incredible as the Dan is at its best, the Fagen/Becker catalog is weirdly hit-or-miss. I dislike vast portions of the aforementioned "Pretzel" ("Any Major Dude..." being my one real keeper) and a handful of songs apiece off of "Katy Lied," "Countdown to Ecstasy" and "Gaucho" (not to mention the majority "Two Against Nature," which I've never really connected with at all, though I'm pretty psyched on the most recent one, "Everything Must Go"). "Aja" might not be my favorite Dan album, but it's definitely the most consistent, with nothing I tend to skip outright.
Anyway, so the fact that the set was so heavy on deep-album tracks was largely awesome but at times a drag. I have to admit that once the crowd got onboard for the string of hits at the end ("Peg," "FM" and then the incredible "Kid Charlemagne" finale) the concert definitely hit its peak fun level (tanned boomers dancing in the aisles, etc., just like when I saw Paul Simon at BAM). As for the nonhits, the less-exciting ones ("Parker's Band" being one) were entirely dwarfed by the way-way-too-good-to-be-true, are-they-reading-my-mind one-two consecutive jam-out of "Gaucho" and "Glamour Profession." Walter Becker sang lead on "Gaucho" and his scratchy, laid-back delivery totally nailed the loopy poignancy of the song, surely one of the weirdest in Dandom (if you're not familiar with the lyrics--which, as Becker recently told me, deal with "the relations of commerce superimposed on the relations of the human heart... with some interesting fashion touches and local color"--you're really missing out). "GlamPro" has long been a fetish object among me and the other members of my neighborhood Dan cult (basically, the dudes in my band, and anyone we happen to encounter who's as obsessed as we are). This version was sublime: Slick, buoyant groove, accented by a gorgeous pink lighting scheme. I really felt that bubbly L.A. drift, the siren song of the high life that "Gaucho" (the record, not the song) spends most of its playing time chronicling and eviscerating. Also, something to cross of my Bucket List [barfs]: I actually heard Donald Fagen sing a) "6:05 / Outside the stadium / Special delivery for Hoops McCann," b) "Crashing the backboard / He's Jungle Jim again" and c) "Jive Miguel / He's in from Bogota / Meet me at midnight / At Mr. Chow's / Szechuan dumplings / After the deal has been done." For real. I'm majorly bummed that Joe and I didn't get to experience this together; he is my GlamPro bro.
Anyway, so those two were the biggest delights for me. Was also psyched to hear my fave tune from "Everything Must Go," the playfully sinister "Godwhacker," as well as "Everything You Did," the penultimate track from "The Royal Scam." I'd always found that one slight, but the "I never knew you..." chorus grabbed me hard tonight. I remember having a similar epiphany re: "I Got the News" the last time I saw the Dan, at Jones Beach in summer of '06.
In comparison with that show--which holds a special place in my heart due to it having been a deep hang with best buds--I think this one may have actually sounded better and more sumptuous. Of course there's going to be more control over that in an indoor setting, but in particular, Fagen's voice was totally on tonight. He was basically able to hang with the holy-shit-this-sounds-exactly-like-the-record standard set by the rest of the band. This was encouraging, since I'd often felt that his voice had really lost its luster in the past few years, turning thin and weak. I'd go so far as to say that I think his performances on "Two Against Nature" (sorry, I just don't like that album at all) and "Morph the Cat" seem like a faint echo of how he once sounded. But tonight he sounded full-bodied and way soulful.
And what can you say about the band? They sound phenomenal. Only 12 pieces, but it's truly a pop orchestra. Drummer Keith Carlock is like some hulking ape of smooth funk, gyrating wildly and just dropping tons of sickness. A keen steward of the groove, for sure. (Speaking of which, ultralanky drummer Ari Hoenig absolutely killed it in the opening set by organist Sam Yahel's band, which had a cool, complex yet laid-back postbop vibe that took me to Larry Young Country.) Jon Herington slays just fine, nodding to all the most beloved parts of the classic Dan guitar solos. Though it's really Becker who steals the show with his badass obbligatos, delivered while his upper body gyrates nerdily in a birdlike manner. And I can't fail to mention the genuine graciousness of both Fagen and Becker in MC mode. There's a bit of playing around--like the groaner of a monologue leading up the "Cuervo Gold" refrain in "Hey Nineteen," delivered last time by Fagen but here by WB--but anyone who harps on their aloofness needs to see them live: When Becker came out for the encore and said, "New Yorkers are the best people in the world," I felt a swell of real camaraderie. Fagen talked less, but he was totally radiant. He was definitely thrilled to be there, or he was doing an amazing job of faking it.
Now obviously there's a pretty powerful anthropological aspect involved in attending a Dan show at this juncture in time, especially on the Upper frickin' West Side and especially in balmy weather. Basically you've got swarms of boomer dad types decked out in pastel Polo shirts and khaki shorts, accessorized with topsiders (god, who am I to call anyone out on this? I've been wearing nothing but...) and sweaters knotted about the neck. And then you've got those more classic-rock-dad dudes who are there with their sons and who buy the newest Dan shirts at the concession stand and wear them during the show and then also flaunt other dad-rock accessories such as a hat from the latest Bruce Springsteen tour. And then there are the tipsy moms out to party and dance. You're watching these folks get down and whoop for tunes like "Hey Nineteen" and you're like, "Do you people realize that you ARE these songs???" In other words, right before your eyes, these barbed critiques of luxury and nostalgia become the soundtracks thereto.
Anyway, this all speaks to something I've been thinking a bit about, namely that it's really hard to be a serious Dan fan and not be really snobby about it. Once you realize that there's something to "get" in the Dan's music--namely that the lyrics are really, really dark and twisted and that the smooth veneer of the music offers an ironic counterpoint to these moods--you immediately start to feel superior to all those classic-rock heads who jam out mindlessly to "Reelin' in the Years" on the radio.
You wonder where Fagen and Becker stand on all this. Do they look down on their audience, or disdain them for exemplifying decadent bourgeois laziness? They sure didn't seem to be looking down on anyone tonight and in the aforelinked interview, Becker told me that he felt that the songs should work (i.e., function as enjoyable music) whether the listener grokked the extent of the inherent ironies or not. So: Attending a Dan concert, it's easy to feel that you're the only one who's really getting it, or as though your understanding of the motivations of the music is way closer to that of its creators than the rest of the audience's. You feel a license to be snobby about it b/c Becker and Fagen have at times cultivated an image of intellectual elitism bordering on snideness. But again, it doesn't really hold up when you see a show. This music *can*--and does, nightly, in front of thousands of people--function as classic rock, albeit a particularly supple, jazzy strain.
All of which brings me to Don Breithaupt's "Aja" book, the latest volume in the 33 1/3 series of pocket-sized volumes, each dealing with an album in the canon of broadly defined pop music. It's a very fascinating read, and one which plays into the whole conundrum (or maybe let's call it a phenomenon, or a symptom, or somesuch, of Dan love) I mention above.
Basically, as plainly as I can state it, the book is a case for Steely Dan's sophistication, and moreover, for that sophistication being measurably *better* or more favorable than the various approaches taken by "normal" rock/pop artists that were active around the time of the Dan's masterwork. Styx, Journey, Boston, Flock of Seagulls--these are just a few of the bands to come under fire in the book, usually via various snide asides. I sometimes felt there was a little too much of that reactionary perspective (i.e., loving the Dan doesn't necessarily mean disdaining something like Journey), but when you get down to it, the Dan *is* more sophisticated than the vast majority of pop. It's only when you take that extra step and say "The Dan is therefore quantifiably superior to the vast majority of pop" that you run into trouble, at least in my book.
This attitude sort of plays into what I was discussing earlier, i.e., the policing of how nonaficiandos dig the Dan, like it's not okay if you just like "Rikki" and "Reelin' in the Years" and if you're not hip to all the session lore and the lyrical references and all the other rarefied mythology that surrounds the band. I've been just as guilty as anyone of all this, and I will almost certainly continue to be. I'm just sort of trying to point out that I experienced a little bit of what was probably healthy self-awareness at tonight's show, esp. during "Kid Charlemagne," when I was dancing and whooping it up along with everyone else. Put it this way: Was the middle-aged couple across the aisle from me enjoying themselves any less because they didn't realize they were grooving out to the chronicle of a crumbling Bay Area drug empire?
Even though deep down, many of us might realize that we'd do well to turn down the cultishness a notch when obsessing over the Dan, that won't stop us from, well, obsessing over the Dan, which becomes pretty much a full-time concern once you've jumped into the deep end the way I did when "Here at the Western World" shredded my psyche a few years back. And in light of that, Breithaupt's book is a great read, packed with illuminating minutiae.
As Joe had pointed out to me, this is really a music-theory book, and much of the discussion is given over to harmony (and therefore, unfortunately, lost on my theory-challenged consciousness). But there's also some great poetic analysis (I'll never be able to hear the opening verses of "Black Cow" the same again, since reading Breithaupt's analysis of the enjambment at play, i.e., you can either hear "They saw your face / On the counter" or "On the counter / By your keys") and session gossip, including a great unpacking of the legendary "Peg" guitar-solo controversy (alluded to in this mindblowing clip from the life-changing "Classic Albums" DVD on Aja). There's also great information re: the context into which Aja was born--Breithaupt knows his '70s rock and pop cold--and Becker and Fagen's jazz influences. Basically this is the kind of book that fills in all the hard facts behind the cliches. Yes, Becker and Fagen were combining jazz with pop, but *how*? Breithaupt gets down into the dirt and dissects these songs on a musicological level, in the process classifying them as something sui generis (which they most certainly are) and distinguishing them from any other contemporary "fusion" experiments (dig Fagen's dis on early electric Miles: "And 'Bitches Brew' was essentially just a big trash-out for Miles. I haven't really changed my mind about that").
So in other words, a fantastic money-where-his-mouth-is argument on behalf of the intensely purposeful craft and artfulness of this classic pop music. When the praise gets too hyperbolic or the counterexamples too dismissive--not to mention when Steve Gadd's solo on "Aja," a laughably clunky and indulgent slopfest, receives yet another thoughtless panegyric--maybe it's only natural to squirm, but sift out the factual nuggets themselves and you've struck Dan gold.