No one has ever sounded quite like Steely Dan. Song lyrics often contain references to esoteric literature but symbolism is shallow; these are the stories of the tripped-out, jaded times that followed the burst of the bubble. The music is a hybrid of fusion jazz, blues and rock, mixing influences like Miles Davis, Chick Corea and Weather Report, with some Junior Parker and Bobby Bland thrown in for good measure.
But those are just influences. Steely Dan's music seems at the core a personal fever, and the incredible success they found is difficult to imagine given that they not only didn't play by the rules, they refused to suffer the field of fools they felt populated the music industry. A Steely Dan interview from any period of their history reveals two guys, probably too smart for their own good, who mess with the press, ridicule their questions and generally love to chomp down hard on the hand that feeds them.
In their latest interview in Rolling Stone, Fagen suggested that a psychiatrist might be more helpful than a throat doctor for Bob Dylan's current touring effort.
This is not an easy way to work your way through the rock world. After their first three successful albums, the band decided to quit touring in 1975 and even through the zenith of their career they couldn't be bothered. The latter part of the decade was spent in the studio, perfecting the sound they heard in their heads (the two finish each other's sentences), and playing fast and loose with the studio musicians on whom they had come to depend. But if the sardonic siblings had a bit of a time picking studio musicians, when those efforts could at least be repeated, how picky do you think they were in selecting a band that could play Steely Dan songs perfectly, on cue, every night?
The "Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day" tour, is not just an interesting title, it's one of the most talented groups of musicians I've experienced. Numbering 13 onstage, the band is comprised of award winners on each instrument. The tour website has a current band listing and a bio on each. It cannot be embedded here as it would take up the entirety of the review, but the list of credits is far more than impressive.
Peabody Opera House is a grand place that makes you feel a bit like you walked into a scene of the Gatsby era, so true is its restoration of Beaux Arts and Art Deco design. And the crowd looked like they may have just missed the Gatsby era in timing. I had hoped that a glimpse across the room before the show would indicate that someone has been trying to raise local children up right, but such was not the case.
Yelling "Hey Nineteen" would not have raised a head. Unless it was thought to be a "How many surgeries I've had" challenge.
The opening act, Deep Blue Organ Trio, was a perfect choice to prepare the crowd for the rush to come, like warming sake before drinking it. The Chicago jazz masters occupied only guitar, Hammond B3 organ and drums but the sound was full and all about the blues. I have been to very few concerts that made me wish the opening act had played longer.
After a short intermission, the lights dimmed and the band, lovingly named the Bipolar Allstars, came out and flew into a tight cover of a Gerry Mulligan jazz classic, "Blueport." Soon Becker and Fagen joined the group and, contrary to their contrary history, just played the hits.
Becker sat a while at first, seeming content to sit and listen to the band and get his motor running, but Fagen took to the keyboard with fervor, with darkened glasses, Ray Charles moves and a photo of Duke Ellington on his stage space. Not difficult to tell where he comes from, in musical terms.
Fagen played electric piano most of the show, but for "Aja" and "Time Out of Mind" he stood and rocked the melodica, swaying a little like Kenny G connected to a Van de Graaff machine someone was cranking backstage. Becker stuck with guitar all night but took solos that suggested that, while his partner might lay down the percussive beat that most of their songs feature, he had a lot to do with the fill that makes it all theirs. The four-piece horn section was stellar all night, playing tightly together and stepping forward to a center stage microphone for solo performances. The backup singers similarly shined as a group, especially on "Babylon Sisters," where they not only got to sing about shaking it, but shook it.
Steely Dan bass lines, most written by Becker, are famously difficult, but they were handled with aplomb by Freddie Washington, who has played with Michael Jackson, Al Jarreau, B.B. King and Stevie Wonder, just to name a few.
Jim Beard, who has worked extensively with guitarists Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin, knows how to work with complicated guitar lines and create a path of his own. His contributions to "Black Cow" had sparks of Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum.
Drummer Keith Carlock -- who took top spots in pop, fusion and all-around categories in a 2009 Modern Drummer's Readers Poll -- got the most applause during the introduction of band members and deserved it. He was hot all night long and is just a talented as the celebrated Steve Gadd from earlier in the band's history.
And Jon Herington, who has been with the band since 2000, is simply a six-string god. Thor with a guitar instead of a hammer.
I simply cannot imagine tighter musicianship.
What happened to the contrarians? When did they exchange the deep cuts, good as they are, for the hits? Did they age and mellow a bit and decide the fools are all of us? Did they finally come to understand what these songs, this music and this attitude meant to a generation?
This is music that makes me want to preach the gospel, proclaim the power of keeping at something until it is beyond perfection. This is music that makes me want to stop people in the street and testify.
I had hoped for more youth. That's not a personal statement about aging, though that would be true too. I had hoped there would be more young people hip to this sound, this mix of everything into something new. But that was not to be, at least on this night in St. Louis.
There really isn't a sense of "everything's going to be fine" in Steely Dan's music but in this case, it might actually have been fine for the crowd to be light on the less chronologically experienced.
It could have been pretty uncomfortable to see your parents, or even grandparents, whoop and shout when Walter Becker spoke of digging deep into that sock drawer to find that herbal delicacy you've been saving for a night such as this, a night Walter Becker called "the best night of the summer."
And, for me, it was.
Blueport (Gerry Mulligan cover)
Your Gold Teeth
Show Biz Kids
Time Out of Mind
Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More
I Want To (Do Everything for You) (Joe Tex cover)
My Old School
Reelin' in the Years
Outro: Untouchables theme