Words by: B. Getz | Images by: A. Hicks
Steely Dan :: 06.18.09 :: St. Augustine Amphitheater :: St. Augustine, FL
On a steamy Thursday night in the First Coast swampland of Northeast Florida, Steely Dan's summer tour hit the St. Augustine Amphitheater, drawing a high-dollar sold-out house.
For nearly two hours, the Dan tore through bop, jazz, Latin rhythms, driving funk, movie soundtrack themes and a Supremes cover with equal verve. Each player had significant chops, and the band was able to effortlessly translate their complex compositions to the stage, not surprising given their reputation as uncompromising musical perfectionists.
The band was a perfect fit for the venue, an amphitheatre carved out of the forest, at the edge of Anastasia State Park. The evening fell within a tremendous wave of humidity that has suffocated Florida, but fans of various ages (though mostly 40+) braved the conditions to receive a wondrous performance. Steely Dan took plenty of liberties with their catalog, and were able to delve deep into the annals of their career, carving out a gig that may not have satisfied the Top 40 Dan fan, but was superbly gratifying for aficionados of albums like Aja, The Royal Scam, Katy Lied and Gaucho, from which the bulk of the night's songs were drawn.
Don't go to a Steely Dan concert in search of improvisational moments, as no note is out of place, no spotlight late to a soloist. The tightly choreographed proceedings unfold with a precision that must inspire envy among Army drill sergeants. Their flawless execution was especially impressive, given the precision of their composed work and depth of their songbook. It was a multi-sensory parallel of the astonishing albums that they painstakingly crafted, all monuments to the quest for musical excellence. Such was the case with the Aja and Gaucho-heavy program in St. Augustine.
Steely Dan is guitarist/bassist Walter Becker and keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen, the duo always surrounding itself with top-flight sideman whilst recording and touring. In their modern incarnation, their sidemen are recruited straight from Top Gun school, employing only the best of the best. This summer's "Rent Party 2009 Tour" would be no different. With a four-piece horn section, three female support singers, bassist, guitarist, keyboardist and drummer, indeed, this was Steely Dan as a big band - apparently, size does matter.
|Walter Becker :: 06.18 :: Florida|
Their backing band began with a slinky warm-up of "Teenie's Blues," as super geek Becker and downtown cool Fagen sauntered onstage to thunderous applause. After a brief acknowledgement, the full band jumped right into the bouncing bop of "Time Out of Mind," a steady rolling groove from Gaucho (1980). Truly the grizzled, cagey veteran hepcat, Fagen moved between sitting at his keyboards and prowling the stage with a melodica. The decadent bandleader eventually settled into the frontman spot while Becker played guitars to his right. Their bright opener established sound levels for the band and audience, and immediately brought the crowd to their feet dancing with excitement.
Next was the big swing of "Bodhisattva," a speedy rocker culled from the seminal Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), and one of their more well-known and covered songs. Becker dueled and harmonized on guitar with guitarist Jon Herington, who was split out far stage right like a flanker, while Jim Beard echoed on pianos, the horn section behind them pumping up the jam. This tune reeled in the requisite redneck populace, unavoidable at any show in the region. Lots of hoots and hollerin' ensued, as both Becker and Herington traded licks like garage band grommets.
One of the first detours of the evening came about during "Show Biz Kids," a raucous funk jam that was slowed down and dirty, the classic "Cold Sweat" break serving as the model for the song's groove. This 1973 track got cookin' fast, with dirge-like funk from bassist "Ready" Freddie Washington and bombastic percussion from the maniacal Keith Carlock. The animated crowd belted out the "goin' to lost wages" refrain with a childlike glee, just as they did during the epic chorus on the following song, "Bad Sneakers" from Katy Lied (1975): "Ya know I'm goin' insane, laughing at the frozen rain." It was deafening.
During "Bad Sneakers," Fagen's voice did show its age, but the band showed its sass as they wound this heartfelt letter into a walloping number, dipping in and out of the reggae break and back to the piano ballad with ease. Finally, a breather arrived in the form of "Two Against Nature," a modern-era song from the Grammy-winning 2000 album of the same name. This brief departure from yesteryear was well received, albeit slightly smooth-jazz.
|Steely Dan :: 06.18 :: Florida|
Quickly, the Dan picked up the pace with the four-to-the-floor rocker "Black Friday" also from Katy Lied. Lead by a crunchy guitar lead, huge vocals and a shout-along chorus, the already muggy temperature ratcheted up a few more notches with the bouldering refrains that fed into ripping guitar phrases. All evening, Herington was a master at recalling the technical prowess of such statured Steely Dan session players as Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Larry Carlton, and Denny Dias.
Becker and Fagen still employ their usual twisted wit with both the "Rent Party" tour moniker and by christening their crack 11-member band "The Breadline Orchestra," cynical nods to today's economic hard times. To the thinking-man's Dan devotee, you could uncover some decidedly dark themes oozing into the collective subconscious with selections like "Bad Sneakers," "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More" and particularly "Black Friday," with its lyric, "Gray men when they dive out the fourteenth floor."
The highlight of a performance filled with highlights, and one of the most incredible pieces I have ever seen performed, was the title track to the band's classic 1977 masterpiece Aja (pronounced "Asia"). As this veritable orchestra unveiled each section of the song, another band member upped the ante, and on a night filled with absolutely masterful renditions of a bottomless songbook it was this song that would take the cake.
The female backup vocalists created an afghan of emotive tones, singing in bright unison, generating powerful romance as the band cooked with a Cajun precision. Fagen dropped the shtick for a moment and got down to some serious business on the keys, with Becker following his lead and trading jazzy lyrical phrasings with Herington out on the wing. Amidst the intense emotional spirit that pulsated through the verses and chorus, the fierce interplay between drummer Keith Carlock and the four-piece brass section was positively breathtaking. The horn section consisted of Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Jim Pugh on trombone, Roger Rosenberg on baritone saxophone and Walter Weiskopf on saxophone. As witness to myriad live performances spanning nearly two decades, this eight-minute passage was some of the most passionate and impressive live music this writer has ever witnessed. Period.
|The Backup Vocalists - Steely Dan :: 06.18 :: Florida|
After that stunning number, it seemed a tall task to take it any higher, though Becker, Fagen and company would try their mightiest. The Royal Scam rocker "Don't Take Me Alive" urged with a harder edge. The screaming, crunchy guitars and Carlock's fast pace swept the crowd to its feet again. The backing vocals were marvelous. By the time they got to the first "pool keeper's son" chorus, the aisles were filled. Herington appropriated the masterful clean guitar licks of Carlton's wailing studio leads while the horns steadied the ship. At this point, the show was reaching an otherworldly level. Herington wound the outro solo to a tension/release climax that had many jaws agape in the now-stifling humidity.
Thus far, Becker had mostly stayed silent on the microphone, ripping trademark clean riffs in the shadows. His first words came via a rambling monologue in "Hey Nineteen," a third of the way through the show. This speech existed solely to set up the song's "Cuervo Gold" bridge, and what a bridge it was. However, Becker should likely leave the humor, wry or otherwise, to Fagen.
From the seductive first moment of "Hey Nineteen," a bent guitar note and single drum kick, the entire scene - pudgy Ponte Vedra golfers, blinged-up housewives, surf bums and aging St. Augustine beatniks and hippies - rose out of their seats to dance the night away. This Gaucho party jam elicited by far the most reaction and interplay the band had with the crowd all night, which by the way was clearly the most involved (and imbibed) Steely Dan audience of the three this writer has been part of. The familiar bop-groove of the slowed-down, disco-funk anthem was a powder keg as good vibrations exploded to the refrain, "Let's make tonight a wonderful thing."
|Donald Fagen - Steely Dan :: 06.18 :: Florida|
A surprising "Parker's Band" followed by serene "Pretzel Logic" gave way to the slinky funk of Katy Lied's "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More," one of the few missteps of the evening as Becker took an unfortunate turn on lead vocals. The swanky country-crunk of "Daddy" deserved a stronger vocal, though pianist Beard and guitarist Herington made one forgive with their smart, lyrical interplay. However, Becker made up for it himself shortly thereafter with a stunning solo during the rollicking, aggressive "Gaucho."
One wouldn't expect Fagen and Becker to turn the stage over to their three backup singers, Janice Pendarvis, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Tawatha Agee, for a version of The Supremes' "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart," but they did exactly that, with Fagen using portions of this cover song to introduce the band and crack trademark jokes.
After a serenading Jim Beard piano intro, the Dan dropped the proverbial bomb in the form of funk juggernaut "Josie." Fagen's mic was out at first, so the rambunctious crowd sang the first few bars for him with vigor. "Ready-Freddie" got real deep with some bass-driven funkadelic stomp, locking in with Carlock and the crucial horn section in a stop-on-a-dime groove. Becker took the opportunity to remind not only Herington but everybody in the building that he owns this song, his clean Fender rippage with emotive phrasings and teeth-gritting aggression echoing his magical Aja studio solos.
|Steely Dan :: 06.18 :: Florida|
Clearly, we were nearing the end of the show, and not surprisingly, out came the heavy hitters. Beginning with a big-band version of the classic "Do It Again" off the Dan's Can't Buy A Thrill, Steely tore through a selection of tunes that were well worth the wait. Carlock wailed on the stomping drums while Fagen's Rhodes work interwove between the bulbous horn arrangements and magical vocals. One of their most recognizable songs, "Do It Again," was done big, and appropriately so, their sound never rounder or more imposing, save for "Aja" about an hour earlier.
Fagen and Becker have always woven tales in their tunes that reference a certain time and place, often wrought with social commentary through great stories. The monster version of "Kid Charlemagne" was an exercise in precision, with various parts of the song stretched out like chapters. Fagen's slowly fading voice was fitting for the tale of LSD chemist/GD guru Owsley Stanley, his early promise, gluttonous ascension and empathetic downfall as shotgun messiah chronicled with that trademark Dan wit. Carlock's thunderous drums and Herington's distorted shred digging it out on the wing made for an epic flight. "Kid Charlemagne" was yet another quintessential Steely Dan song - intelligent wordplay, progressive jazz-rock, masterful playing. Just beyond the beaten path of the Bible Belt at the edge of a forest, shouting and dancing with thousands, we asked in unison, "Did you feel like Jesus?" This was a musical moment that shall not be soon forgotten.
The band left the stage briefly, but the heat, humidity and crowd electricity had them back for an encore in no time. First came "Peg," another colossal Aja number, with more joyous, bouncing funk, major keys and big leads. The three luscious female vocalists used the chance for one more bit of shine, their trifecta of tone nearly matching the enormous original Michael McDonald backing vocal. As usual, Fagen and Becker laid back in the cut, playing and singing but letting their cohorts shine on their creations, a proud arrogance within their gaping grins.
|Steely Dan :: 06.18 :: Florida|
Fittingly, Steely Dan chose "My Old School" to close this monumental performance. The refrain is a mantra at graduations around the Western world, a track that delves way back to their sophomore album. Rather than wander around displaying individual talents, Steely Dan adopted a collective attitude during the closer. They sang the lyrics together with reckless abandon and played a little harder and a little faster than the song might have called for. Nobody complained, as Herington and Becker nailed the stop/start riffage with aplomb, while Beard and Fagen comped behind them, with Carlock and the horns marching along. The dynamic duo, exhausted from the heat both in the air and on stage, acknowledged the standing ovation while walking from the stage to the tune of "Theme from Last Tango in Paris." The band finished the number and soon followed.
Despite the fact that I needed nearly two thousands words to review this concert, words cannot fully express the flood of emotions that came over me throughout this show and in the days afterward. Clearly, this was a demonstration of top-flight musicianship, an overwhelming canon and a shared commitment to excellence. Steely Dan's "Rent Party" was easily the strongest and most enjoyable musical performance of this writer's 2009, thus far.
Steely Dan :: 06.18.09 :: St. Augustine Amphitheater :: St. Augustine, FL
Intro (Teenie's Blues), Time Out of Mind, Bodhisattva, Show Biz Kids, Bad Sneakers, Two Against Nature, Black Friday, Aja, Don't Take Me Alive, Hey Nineteen, Parker's Band, Pretzel Logic, Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More, Gaucho, Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart > Josie, Do It Again, Kid Charlemagne
E: Peg > My Old School, Outro ("Theme from Last Tango in Paris")
JamBase | Beneath a Banyan Tree
Go See Live Music!