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Oldies But Goldies: Steely Dan AT The Beacon In 2009

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(Or Through The Past darkly, in keeping with my Stones addiction at the moment, here is my review of an August 2009 concert by Steely Dan, who are playing the Beacon for an extended stay this October – IL)

Ok, we’re all patiently waiting for guitarist alumni Larry Carlton’s solo on “Kid Charlemagne” and since this is “The Royal Scam” night where Steely Dan are to play one of their classic albums from beginning to end before a second act of greatest hits and it is as remorselessly perfect as on the album. We are two and a half minutes into the set but we are there on the wrong date so we are awed by a solo but we are not awed by that solo because Larry don’t live in that New York city no more. The song, about famous LSD manufacturor Owsley Stanley is more of a kiss off to the 60s from an ultimately 70s band. Steely Dan were nothing like the 60s; they were not loose, they were not mind expanding drug trippers they are Ritalin poppers, they were in complete control of their environment when they recorded “Kid Charlemagne” and today 36 years later they still are in control: Remorseless, perfect. And really, these guys are such pros that once it is done, once it is done forever, they can get any pro to do it again. Remorseless perfectionism.

Which describes tonight’s concert, both the good and the bad, to a T. There is a punishing stupendousness to the evening. Here is the setlist:

Kid Charlemagne
The Caves Of Almeira
Don’t take me Alive
Sign In Stranger
The Fez
Green Earrings
Haitian Divorce
Everything You Did
The Royal Scam
Hey Nineteen
Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City
Aja
Black Friday
Home at Last Parker’s Band
Third World Man
Josie
My Old School
Peg
Reeling in the Years

Did you notice? Not a dog in the bunch: every single song is this pristine pearl of sound with a heart of purest poison. After they complete Royal Scam, lead singer says “Lean back, relax, and we’ll take care of everything.” And that’s what happened, it is like Steely Dan are such craftsmen, such steely eyed pros, such superb players on such intricate music it’s like they are treading on your throat and you are struggling for breath. What can you say about a band where Jim Pugh’s trombone solo on The Royal Scam” (song not album) is the equal of Carlton’s? What can you say of a night where every song is a highlight and where “Aja” is so breathtaking and intricate and like fits together like a jigsaw puzzle and stands out like a mosaic. The drumming is so complex and the tough part is how FELT it is and yet how programmed it is. The instrumental middle part is the highlight of the show and how they can make us NOT miss Wayne Shorter is… like those “F is For faker” artists who fooled the New York art world for years. It’s the song of a note on a night where they end with “Reeling In The Years”!!

I have seen Steely Dan several times but I think this must have been the best yet. Look at those last three songs on the set list. This was the first time for two of them and the middle one is a long term fave and they are so brilliantly, I might have changed a song here or there if I was writing the list but so what else is new? Song after song is just meat to ravernous lions and the audience both jumps to the song and also sits back in dumbfounded awe. It was worth $85 just to hear Fagen sing “My Old School,” hell it was worth it just to hear Walter Becker (always playing Keith richards to Fagen’s Jagger) croak “Daddy Don’t Live…”. And Fagen, whom the Village Voice described as looking like Kermit the Frog with rabies (or that’s what they should have done) is everything to see physically but he is worth looking at. Becker looks like a flub and there is an elegant arrogance to Fagen with his shades and his head cocked up at a weird angle. Together, like the sleazes and scumbags they often sing about, there is something so dissolute about them in direct contradistinction to the ridiculously high level of their music. You know how punk said everybody can do it? Steely Dan say nobody can do it, not even the guys who wrote it and their band, the pros from dover if you will, execute this shit on a dime as they stand there calm and uncaring, like the gods of ancient Rome just executing one musical tailspin after another: always exactly where they are meant to be.

Like Madonna they (and by they I mean Steely Dan and by Steely dan I mean Walter and the Don) have no heart and in its place have intense pride in their technique and all EMOTIONS, all the stuff we think we’re coming to music for, is not what is here. But their audience are smarties and they know what they are hearing and respond very well to the magnetic and vicious “Don’t take Me Alive”: the tone is implied distaste, all spit and polish. Fagen and Becker are like brain surgeons don’t bother with their patients, barely talk to em, but can go in to surgery and do what nobody else can do and save their lies. The doctors have zero interest in their patients but still needs them to practise their art on and pay em boatloads of money and Steely Dan ARE EXACTLY THE SAME. You go to them and you are blown away by the recreations and the improvisations of a minutely decibled sound. This is what Steely Dan are all about: maintaining the distance between their wastrel persona and their genius music. They are the embodiment of the cover of “The Royal Scam” -a rich man posing as a pauper.
After all these years I still think they’re genius (just as an aside I found this post very difficult to write and rewrote it completely twice) but I love them from a distance and I know I’ll never get closer then this contracted admiration. Oddly enough there is an album where they finally manage to dissolve their differences, Donald Fagen’s “The Nightfly” resolves all contradictions between the raindrops. How about playing it next year, boys? What can you do with “The Goodbye Look”? on stage…

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