Saturday, August 17, 2013

Adrian's Summer/Fall Concert Blitz, Part 3: Steely Dan, Marymoor Park, Redmond, WA, 8/15/13

It took me a long time to get into Steely Dan. I'd heard them for years on the radio, of course. But a few years back, Neal Morse did a cover of "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," and even though it was a pretty by-the-numbers performance, it made the song come alive for me. Maybe it was just hearing it performed in a different context, or by one of my favorite prog-rock musicians.

Whatever the case, I ended up buying the Citizen Steely Dan box set shortly afterward and immersing myself in their catalog -- so much so that Steely Dan has become a large part of Miranda's musical diet. She knows when the Dan comes on. She loves their music. She dances to the opening percussion bit of "Do It Again," she applauds during "Aja," and she smiles and laughs whenever the chorus to "Midnite Cruiser" comes around. She's also pretty fond of "Reelin' in the Years," probably because we sing her name during the chorus. "Miranda Penelopeeee! Mandy-Mandy Pen-nyyyyy!" When a song ends, she asks me to play it again. I'm happy to oblige. I mean, she could be asking to hear the Barney theme song a dozen times in a row.

So anyway, when I heard the Dan was coming to the Seattle area, I was half-tempted to take Miranda along to the show with me. She'd be familiar with the music and might actually have a good time.

I'm kind of glad I decided to leave her at home.

Not that the show was awful, but I've certainly seen better. And the whole evening kind of started out annoying and didn't improve a whole lot.

The traffic getting there started things off all wrong. It took me an hour and a half to cover the 20 miles between home and Marymoor Park. When I finally arrived, the opening act was just getting started -- a jazz trio that sounded rather unremarkable to my ears. So I checked out the merchandise table and moved on to grab some food. I found one food truck that sold veggie burgers, but before I got to the front of the line, they ran out of all their main courses, and then they ran out of all their sides, except for some mixed greens. Blah. The lines for the other food trucks were a mile long, so I grabbed a soda and went off to find my seat.

At least I had a good view of the stage -- an aisle seat, 11 rows back. Not long after I sat down, the Dan's backing band came out and treated us to a snappy little jazz instrumental. I had no idea what it was and had to look up some other recent Steely Dan concert setlists to figure out that it was a piece by Gerry Mulligan called "Blueport."

After the opener, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker came out, accompanied by three female backing singers. That stage was crowded -- in all, it was a 13-piece band, with Fagen and Becker, the backing singers (who called themselves the Borderline Brats), a four-piece horn section (trumpet, trombone, baritone sax, alto/tenor sax), bass, keyboards, guitar, and drums. When Fagen sat down behind his electric piano, the ensemble kicked into the first Dan song of the night, "Your Gold Teeth." Good, uptempo choice to start things off. It certainly had me bopping in my chair and singing along.

From there, the band moved into what is probably my favorite Dan track: "Aja." Just a ridiculously smooth blend of jazz and pop, with some of the best melodies this band ever recorded. For this song, Fagen stepped out from behind his keyboard for what would be one of only two times during the show, taking center stage to play his melodica during the middle instrumental break. Now, I couldn't give two hoots about the fashion sensibilities of my favorite musicians, but it was hard not to notice, upon getting a full view of Fagen, that he looked like he'd slept in his clothes and hadn't shaved in a week. Maybe he'd had a particularly rough day? Or maybe he was just playing the part of the aging beatnik who's so laid back and groovy, man, that he just doesn't care what people think of him and his appearance?

Well, who knows. But it was around the middle of "Aja" that the venue's security folks started swarming up and down the aisles and telling people to stop taking pictures with their phones -- at the request of the band. They were even hovering over people and watching until they deleted their photos from their phones. Now, I'm fine with this. The artists can set any reasonable stipulations they want to, of course -- but why not make an announcement from the stage before the show started, or have a notice posted as you walk through the gate? I think a lot of people were annoyed at being taken by surprise like that. I managed to squeeze off a few shots before the Photo Nazis moved into action, so enjoy the following Steely Dan contraband.

When Fagen sat back down at his keyboard to sing the final verses of "Aja," and my initial rush of excitement started to die down, I noticed for the first time two things: First, with the way he tilts his head to the side to sing, and with his Elwood sunglasses that never left his face all night long, Fagen looked disturbingly like a white Ray Charles. And second, Fagen seemed to be really straining to hit some of the higher notes. That was a problem that appeared to get worse as the night rolled on. By the time the band got around to "Reelin' in the Years" later in the show, Fagen's voice just cut out completely in spots while he was singing the verses. It also became obvious that the Dan's backing singers were masking a lot of Fagen's limitations, to the point where it sounded as if they were singing some of the melodies while Fagen harmonized along. But how long can he keep that up before it becomes apparent to a lot of people that there's a problem?

It all reminded me of one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Gordon Lightfoot, whose once smoky baritone has sadly become thin, pinched, and reedy in his old age. Now, I wouldn't say Fagen's voice is shot, like Lightfoot's is, but I can't imagine he'll have enough of a voice left to tour for too many more years. If Steely Dan is a band you've ever thought about going to see, I'd recommend doing it sooner rather than later.

I have no complaints about the performances by the rest of the band members, all of whom I expected to be consummate professionals. After all, Steely Dan was notorious back in the day for uncompromising standards of musicianship. It took something like seven months to record the Aja album because Fagen and Becker kept grinding through session players until they got the exact sound they wanted, and even then the musicians would be subjected to dozens and dozens of takes if the two masterminds decided something wasn't quite right. The drummer might have hit the snare a little too lightly in the 23rd bar or something. Seriously -- that's the fanatical attention to detail that made their best compositions come out sounding so amazingly precise and clean.

So the music sounded great, anyway. No complaints there. And it was fun to hear things like "Peg" that have come around on the CD player a hundred times before. Heck, the band even kept things fresh by coming up with new arrangements for a few songs. "Show Biz Kids" got a nice funk-ified workover. The Borderline Brats sang lead on "Razor Boy," and Becker took the mic for "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More." (As an aside, Becker's voice is OK, but there's also a reason he's not a lead singer on a regular basis.)

But the setlist was a little strange, too. Consider: Steely Dan had two top-10 hits in the United States -- "Do It Again" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." Perversely, Steely Dan played neither of those songs Thursday night. No sight of "Deacon Blues," either, one of their most recognizable tunes. I also would have loved to hear "Midnite Cruiser," "Green Earrings," "Don't Take Me Alive," "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again," or "Your Gold Teeth II" -- but in fairness, that's starting to dig deeper into the catalog, and I couldn't be genuinely disappointed that they weren't performed. But I did miss hearing "Do It Again," "Rikki," and "Deacon."

To that end, it would have helped had the band not wasted so much time onstage. For one thing, there was that opening jazz number, and then they closed the show with a cover of the theme from The Untouchables. (Why? you ask. I do not know.) And in between all that, Becker laid into two interminable rambles onstage. One was a long, drawn-out band-member intro, over a Joe Tex cover tune called "I Want to Do Everything for You," and the other was a hello to the audience during "Hey Nineteen" that felt like it lasted about 19 minutes. He thanked everyone for making the right choice to save up their pennies to buy their tickets for the show, instead of blowing their money on a new pair of pants at L.L. Bean, because we all want to be smart with our money now that we're all fully vested, or at least almost vested … and then after the show, we'll all drive home to our houses in suburbia, and maybe dig out that thing you bought at the Renaissance Faire in 1967 and smoke a bowl in it, or maybe you'll rifle through the pantry and pull out that dusty bottle of Jose Cuervo that you bought on vacation in Mexico, but the label got torn off years ago -- this went on, if not for 19 minutes, at least for a solid five. Yes, Walter, you and Donald are so very wry and so very clever. Could you maybe play another song for us now? We paid you guys a lot of money for these seats. I mean, you have nine full studio albums to pick from. It's not like you need to fill up space for a shortage of material.

Speaking of Walter Becker, what, really, is his role in Steely Dan? I've never quite figured it out. He didn't take many guitar solos during the show. And the way the songwriting duties are split has always been something of a mystery to me. Judging from what I've heard of both his and Fagen's solo albums, Fagen sounds more like Steely Dan musically, but Becker has more of the biting wit of the best Dan lyrics. So maybe that's how it breaks down, but I've never really heard either guy give an illuminating answer about it in their interviews. The conclusion I have to draw, then, is that Walter Becker is either one of the luckiest guys in show business, riding all these years on Fagen's vision, or he's one of the quietest geniuses in rock history, perhaps doing a whole heck of a lot behind the scenes but letting Fagen take the spotlight. Interesting guy, no doubt.

Anyway, about halfway through the show, when the relentless marijuana smoke started to burn my eyes, I got up and wandered around the grounds. One nice thing about the Marymoor venue is that it's in an open-air park, a really pretty, wooded place just outside Redmond. And you can wander all around the grounds and still hear the music clearly. So I headed off toward the food trucks that were still open and got myself a slice of wood-fired pizza, because by this point I was starving. (Or maybe it was just a contact-buzz-fueled case of the munchies.) I sat down at a picnic table and relaxed in the cool but muggy evening air (both Fagen and Becker complained about the dampness -- it's Seattle, guys!) while the slow shuffle of "Babylon Sisters" drifted over from the stage.

For the rest of the show I stood out on the lawn. Nice view, with the moon hanging directly over the stage.

People around me were dancing like crazy to "Bodhisattva," and you can't really blame them. It's a great tune with a fast, driving beat, floating somewhere between jazz and rockabilly. Jazzabilly?

After that we got "Josie" (with a nice Becker solo), "Peg," "My Old School," "Reelin' in the Years," and then an encore of "Kid Charlemagne" and the aforementioned Untouchables theme to close things out.

Funny Spinal Tap moment: The smoke machine got a little too enthusiastic, to the point where the guitarist standing near stage right was completely obscured from the crowd. A roadie scurried out onstage, hunched down so as not to block anyone's view of the band, and turned the thing off -- to a roaring ovation from the crowd.

Clueless audience-member moment: A guy standing behind me kept singing "Get along, get along sweet Charlemagne." Dude, "Kid Charlemagne" is only the title of the song. How can you get that wrong?


Anyway, I've been to shows where I've found the price of admission was worth every penny, and others where I would have been better off staying home and playing my CDs. It's nice to be able to say I've seen Steely Dan in person, but this was one case where I could have saved my money, had I known what the show would be like.

For what I paid for the ticket, I probably could have bought a couple of pairs of pants at L.L. Bean.

Your Gold Teeth
Hey Nineteen
Show Biz Kids
Black Friday
Black Cow
Time Out of Mind
Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More
Razor Boy
Babylon Sisters

I Want to Do Everything for You/band member intros
My Old School
Reelin' in the Years

Kid Charlemagne
Theme From The Untouchables

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