THEY GOT A NAME FOR THE WINNERS IN THE WORLD
Donald Fagen ambled out onstage Monday night at Steely Dan’s War Memorial Auditorium show, his 11-piece backing band already in place and warmed up, Fagen turned to the audience and gave an innocuous little “Oh-surprised-to-seeyou-there” jolt. For a lot of people in their nearly sold-out audience, the surprise was shared.
It has been two decades since Steely Dan returned to the stage, and almost four since Fagen and his creative partner Walter Becker issued a summary injunction on touring. The Dan in the minds of their fans have occupied the pinnacle where rock, jazz and pop meet, a faultless thing on records that wove together impeccable musicianship and ivory tower literary perspicuousness.
Being no other way to perceive the band for 18 years, the corporeal version of the band thus would logically become less attainable over time. Becker and Fagen would spend their prime years defeated by militant perfectionism, Fagen bemoaning the technological incapacity to achieve live the sounds they created in the studio, meanwhile their fans pined and grew old. When they would achieve a full touring schedule over several years for the first time ever, Fagen, undoubtedly aware of the supreme irony, would lament the demographics of his audience in his book of essays, Eminent Hipster, last year.
“Mike, Boz and I are pretty old now and so is most of our audience. Tonight, though, the crowd looks so geriatric I was tempted to start calling out bingo numbers,” he noted during his 2012 tour with the Dukes of September, later pouring his contempt on even thicker. “The crowd at the Orpheum was the oldest yet. They must have bused in people from nursing homes. There were people on slabs, decomposing, people in mummy cases.” This, from a guy who delivered not one, but two melodica solos in the middle of his band’s concert.
For much of Steely Dan’s first-ever visit to the Triad, his crowd played to the stereotype: seated and subdued, but responsive — the most that can be asked of a crowd greeted by the reticent, but tasteful guitar playing of opener Bobby Broom.
Broom’s early years under the tutelage of fire breather Sonny Rollins are not completely apparent in the current product:
he opened with a swinging interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Eric Clapton’s “Layla”, reduced to their glowing embers, but attentive to the needs of Dan fans.
Then, about midway through the set, something clicked. After a muted trumpet solo during “Dirty Work” was enough to flat-line the ancient crowd that Fagen was imagining, the resounding boogie of “Bodhisattva” sent one man into the aisles and down to the front, jumping in ecstasy as venue attendants made halfhearted Aug efforts 13 to escort him back to his Wed seat. A chain reaction ensued, and a room of people that would have only minutes ago chided you for standing up to clap spilled into the aisles. It provoked easily the evening’s most discernable, positive featuring reaction from Fagen, who’s eyes wandered briefly around the room in delight, belying another assertion he made in his book about anyone with a camera at his show (“I refuse to look at you. You’re a corpse.”).
For those just coming for the promises inherent in a tour called “Jamalot”, there was plenty else to be happy about. Becker and Fagen’s backing unit flexed their muscle on pianist Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant” from the jump before the duo took the stage and sunk right into the springy groove of “Black Cow”, a song that’s the perfect reduction of Steely Dan. They were great developing scenes in their songs; not just setting and color, but actual music scenes from which their listeners can flesh out the details. That’s jazz; create the outline, provide some direction and a theme, and leave the rest up to the beholder to debate, interminably in this case. “Drink your big black cow and get out of here.” It took place at Rudy’s, a Hell’s Kitchen joint that serves alcohol, but in this case, an ice cream libation, suggesting rejection of judgment and contempt, two feelings of which Fagen is keenly aware.
Maybe that’s why he’s such a notorious crank; it’s easy to imagine his fans badgering him relentlessly on the minutiae of their music, like why they didn’t play “Deacon Blues”, when all along it’s been argued that its inspiration laid just miles away. There may or may not still be a tree on Silas Creek Parkway that gave rise to its famous line “drink Scotch Whiskey all night long/And die behind the wheel”. It would have been slipped right in following Becker’s, the most reluctant guitar god, lone vocal lead on “Daddy Don’t Live in New York City No More”, but they dove straight into Joe Tex’s “I Want To (Do Everything for You)” instead.
It took a minute or two longer for that Tex cover to pop up on the show’s setlist fm page than the rest of Monday’s set (yes, Steely Dan’s Greensboro setlist was a living document for two hours). Despite every show sticking to a tidy script save for one or two variables, someone was posting it song by song and got hung up when “Deacon Blues” didn’t show up. Steely Dan probably thought at one time that they were more clever and better than everyone else, and they were right. !