Monday, August 26, 2013

Mellow Sunday in LA with Steely Dan

I would have loved to catch Steely Dan in the early 70s when Skunk Baxter played guitar with them, but my ticket to the show did not include access to the time machine to zap me back to 1973. Shit Steely Dan formed forty years ago. The dynamic duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen stopped touring in the mid-70s and focused on becoming a well-polished studio band. Over the next few decades, they brought in dozens and dozens of musicians for each album and pieced together a few gems. Fagen/Becker were accomplished musicians who wrote complex compositions but had songwriting chops to produce a few radio hits. You couldn't listen to classic rock radio for more than a few hours without hearing a Steely Dan song. Like most Gen-Xers, you either liked a few Steely Dan tunes (e.g. Peg or Hey Nineteen), or absolutely hated them.

I had previously only seen one Steely Dan show. Almost 10 years ago at Mohegan Sun Casino. I don't remember too much about the show except for the fact I had a bad seat and they played more stuff I didn't know than I did. I was more at the casino to play poker than to see the show and I got stuck in the back with all the drunk cougars from Greenwich yapping the entire time.

Then again, live Steely Dan was always hit or miss. Steely Dan was all about the precision of their studio albums. Bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead are all about soaking up the "scene" and eating drugs to enhance the live musical experience, so their studio albums never replicated that live "magic." For Steely Dan, the magic was in the studio. Just check out the mini-documentary on the making of the AJA album and you'll understand Becker/Fagen's drive for perfection by using rotating cast of musicians during that year-long recording session.


I finally saw Steely Dan again. Only my second show. They weren't getting any younger, so I decided to catch them one last time before it was too late. Steely Dan played two nights at the Nokia Theatre in downtown LA. It's part of their Mood Swings Tour and they called their backing band the Bi-Polar Band. They were a super tight and versatile crew including four horn players and three back-up singers.

Sunday's show was a totally different experience than my first show. I went in with low expectations this time, but was happy to see/hear Fagen and Becker still hold their own. Plus, a bunch of things happened in ten years and I had become a bigger fan of Steely Dan after I moved to Los Angeles. I felt a stronger connection to the music and lyrics because Fagen/Becker were also displaced New Yorkers living in Hollyweird. I finally had a soundtrack to accompany my frustration trying to adjust to the SoCal vibe. There's a certain level of poetic snark in their lyrics, which I grew more fond of over the years.

I went by myself. My girlfriend isn't a fan. So, I raged solo. Then again, Steely Dan isn't the type of crowd that I'm used to seeing a show with. I'm almost always on the older side when I'm at Phish shows (my Colorado friends make fun at me with the nickname "Brett Favre of the lot"), but I feel young at Furthur and Steely Dan. My girlfriend and I caught Bob Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl earlier this year. Everyone was sitting down. You could smell a few joints being passed around, but it was a mellow crowd. Similar vibe at Steely Dan, except not one joint. I wasn't holding and did not take in a vapor pen. I didn't even drink ($15 for a tiny-sized Margarita made the choice for me). Sober show, except a pain pill for my back, which I barely felt the buzz.

I found a floor ticket for half price ($75). Got it 45 minutes before showtime. Pit tickets were $275 a pop (plus fees). Scalpers wanted $500. No one was biting. At one point that price dropped to $150 for a pit.

Everyone was around me was at least two decades older than me. Lots of older hippies, but with money now. You had to flush. Only way you can afford to buy a pair of tickets, plus booze, plus parking.

Steely Dan (from Santa Barbara show); photo by Paul Wellman

Steely Dan played AJA in its entirety the night before. Sunday's show was designated "Greatest Hits" and performed almost the same setlist they had been playing the entire tour with three exceptions. I was hoping to hear two of them... Do It Again and Deacon Blues (while Rikki Don't Lose That Number was the other). Fagen made several jokes about their ancient age and the death of radio.

"We're playing the hits tonight. Stuff you used to hear on the radio in 1861 through 1871."

G-Money told me to keep a keen eye on Walter Becker. He switched from bass back to guitar full time. He sort of faded into the background some of the non-popular songs, but he tore it up on the "hits" especially Reeling In the Years. He even got to do rare lead vocals on Daddy Doesn't Live in That New York City Anymore. It's a deep cut, but again it one of those Steely Dan songs that has become the soundtrack to my life.

Fagen always did most of the singing, but he needed three background singers to hit those high notes that he once employed Michael McDonald to do (see above video). But Walter sang on one song and he told a story in the middle of Hey Nineteen, about blowing your savings and paying inflated prices to a scalper and then trying to get laid because your cougar wife is all drinky drinky and randy from the music, so you smoke some "cheeba cheeba" that's thirty years old and get some tequila, but you ran out. Which at that point of the story, Fagen and the ladies belted out "Cuervo Gold" lyrics to the song and Hey Nineteen resumed.

The other highlights included... Show Biz Kids, Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More, Do It Again, Josie, Peg, My Old School, and Reelin In the Years. This is a self-aware band that knows that if they want to charge $150 for a floor ticket and $275 for the pit, then they better play the damn hits... and play them well. They billed it as greatest hits and didn't force any "newer" material onto the audience. This wasn't a band trying to sell a new album for the record label. This was a bunch of legendary musicians from the golden era of rock and roll, playing their blend of rock with jazzy undertones.

During Peg, a few drunk ladies stood up to dance. No twerkers at Steely Dan. By the end of the song, a few more ladies had joined them. By the end of My Old School more people in my section had joined in. By the end of Reelin In the Years, everyone was on their feet. I was on the aisle and boogied down for the last two songs, plus the encore. For the last 15-20 minutes of the show, you really felt like everyone was totally into it.

Kid Charlemagne was written about Stanley Owsley. He was the Walter White of the 60s, but cooked up the best LSD known in existence. Good old Owsley, aka Bear, aka Kid Charlemagne. The boys ended the show with a nod to Owsley.

I got a great bargain for half price. $75 for Steely Dan was about right. They have 13 people in the band, so I hope everyone is getting paid real well considering how how expensive the tickets are. I had fun. I went in knowing what the setlist was going to be, and they added couple of songs I didn't except to hear. Nice curverballs. I went to see the hits and Steely Dan delivered. You know what those Danheads say. Never miss a Sunday Steely Dan show.

P.S. Here's a great video of Bill Cosby introducing Steely Dan on the Midnight Special show (circa 1973)...

2 comments:

John Stodder said...

I saw Saturday night's show, which opened with the Aja album. It was a great show, but it was apparent that while "Deacon Blue" is one of their great recordings, it is not a winner live in concert. Steely Dan live is above all about the beat, and "Deacon..." doesn't really have one.

ME said...

Great review as always.... I've passed on the Dan when they hit London (partly ticket price) but will make the effort next time...