Monday, June 15, 2009

Music review: Steely Dan still tight, mysterious after reeling in all those years

Donald Fagen, right, and Walter Becker, left, of Steely Dan
perform My Old School at Mizner Park on Saturday night.
(Photo by Thom Smith)

By Thom Smith

Forty years later and we still scratch our heads. We're gullible; we're impressionable; we're hungry for the new; and although we have more money, we still run into trouble when we try to buy a thrill.

Which makes it all the easier for Walter Becker and Donald Fagen to tease us. Saturday night the founders of Steely Dan rolled five Rent Party '09 buses into Boca Raton for 100 minutes of laid-back, dancing in the aisles, fun and games music at Mizner Park Amphitheatre.

Nearly 4,000 paid to twist and twirl in the steamy night air; a couple thousand more – hearing but not seeing -- tailgated on the east lawn or parked folding chairs in the central promenade. “All the way to Starbucks,” one security guard noted.

Forget the money. Just what did we get for our sweat and devotion?

A good show. Not a great show, but after four decades of conditioning, we know that the Dan is steely, not chrome: it offers substance not flash. A studio band that tours infrequently, only because it must, although that restraint seems to be weakening as Becker and Fagen approach senior status.

They brought nine musicians an four backup singers, all but two of whom have toured with them before, and they're studio tight, not missing a lick, but also not soaring into the stratosphere or even to the balcony seats with an improvisation. Steely Dan may be heavily influenced by jazz, but it is not a jam band.

This is a band, after all, that's named for a mythical sex toy – a dildo in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. This is a band whose original member, guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, went to the Doobie Brothers, and in the mid-1990s became an expert on ballistic missile defense. So with Steely Dan, all things are possible, though not necessarily probable.

With the appearance of Becker and Fagen on Time Out of Mind, the crowd was reminded that no band in the history of rock 'n' roll has produced music quite like Steely Dan. With nary a breath, they jumped into Godwhacker, a cut from their most recent album, Everything Must Go in 2003.

Climb up the glacier
Across bridges of light
We sniff you, Big Tiger
In the forest of the night

So what is Godwhacker about? Who knows? Although it's amusing to read some speculation online – could “You better get gone poppie, Godwhacker's on the case” refer to the Presidents Bush and their pursuit of Saddam Hussein? This I do know: Morocco is not in Turkey.

Not a lot of time to ponder, however, because just as quickly they're into an almost dirgelike Reeling in the Years (dramatic departure from studio version) to a note-for-original-note Bad Sneakers (1975), then fast forward a quarter-century to Two Against Nature (2000), then back to Black Friday, also '75.

When Black Friday comes
I'll stand down by the door
And catch the gray men when they
Dive from the fourteenth floor

But is that all it means?

And so it continued: an extended play of Aja, Sign in Stranger, Hey Nineteen, Babylon Sisters, then the toned-down, slowed-down, more deliberate Daddy Don't Live in New York City No More, Here at the Western World, Black Cow, Josie, Kid Charlemagne.

At multiple-date stops in Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the band will play selected albums in their entirety or set lists determined by Internet voting. Saturday night in Boca fans just got a good sampling of greatest hits, with only one non-Dan song – the band covering Last Tango in Paris after Becker and Fagen had left the stage.

OK, some of the lyrics don't make sense, or at least are too ethereal for those on lower planes of consciousness who are coping with buyouts and foreclosures and high gas prices. But in the world of Steely Dan the lyrics are just another element of the music; they're as important for their sound as for their meaning.

And on a Saturday the 13th in Boca, it sounded pretty good.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They played THREE non Dan songs, the jazz opener, the Supremes "Love is an itchin' in my heart" and the final number you mentioned.