Thursday, August 6, 2009

Steely Dan at the Beacon NYC (7/31/09)

Last Friday night Steely Dan killed it in New York City during one of a slew of shows they're doing across the country where they play entire albums live and/or do some fan internet set-request thing.
I got really excited when I heard about this little tour which they've dubbed Rent Party '09 even before they announced which albums they'd be performing (or where) and I knew I had to make it to one of these shows.  Thankfully, they opted to do my personal favorite record, The Royal Scam. Unfortunately the closest they were coming to my San Francisco apartment was LA, and the Scam show was on a Monday down there...which seemed unreasonable on a number of levels.
Instead I decided to pay an exorbitant amount for a plane ticket, fly to the East Coast, do a little family visiting, and hit up the NYC show with my old friend and desert island Royal Scam concert buddy, Phil.

The Royal Scam (1976) is, to me, the quintessential 70s guitar record.  All Steely Dan records have blistering solos and complicated changes making use of weird jazz substitutions and augmented 13 chords, but this one stands out as being particularly guitar-volutionary. The solos are mind-melting.  I discovered this one back in college.  It was my second Steely record (after Can't Buy A Thrill) but this one struck me square in the spank and I was in love with the Dan from that point on.

On to the show itself on 7/31/09:  It's no secret that the dudes in Steely Dan (Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) are sort of uber-dorks (which I'm totally into) and though I'd seen some DVD stuff, this was my first time seeing them live.  They're a bit goofy, but their arrangements are rad as hell.
Fagen looks something like a vampire doing a Ray Charles impression, with the dark sunglasses and a flappity flap muppet jaw, but he (still) sounds unbelievable.  "Sign in Stranger" was a real stinger, with Fagen brutalizing the verse licks and the piano solo.  
Here's the album cut, which is already really amazing:

"Sign in Stranger"

I had heard they had to cancel the show two nights prior because of Fagen having some voice-loss issues, so some people were saying he was taking it easy on Friday night...but I didn't really notice him holding back.  That said, he's got three really spot on females backing him up throughout so I suppose it may be difficult to tell...but basically it didn't feel like anything was missing vocally.
The show in general was murderous, but one truly bizarre thing that happened was this: Becker and Fagen got up and left the stage for "The Fez"  They just got up and walked off and the remaining band played the tune all the way through.  I'm not up on all the Dan lore...but apparently Steely Dan simply does not play this song. It was slightly disappointing because "The Fez" is maybe my second favorite track on The Scam (after Kid Charlemagne) but even stranger is that this live arrangment was really only lacking Fagen's vocals over top of the chorus (there is no verse), a part which is also covered by the backup singers. So in reality, the song didn't change much at all, although they definitely rocked it out a lot less than the songs that bookended it.  Still, with no concrete explanation for all this, I am pretty puzzled as to why the boys refuse to perform this.  As my friend Tom pointed out, since Becker and Fagen are the only two official members of "Steely Dan," I did not see Steely Dan play this song.  Dig the Vegas synth...

"The Fez"

After that though...they carried on shooting silver-chocolate arrows of medical grade thorazine directly into my A-frame and the rest of the night was amazing. "Green Earrings", "The Royal Scam" (the song), "Aja", "Home At Last", and "My Old School" were all highlights.

Finally, a word about guitar-playing wizardry:
There were three (awesome) guitar players on stage.  There was Becker, a hired-gun younger dude (name=Jon Herington), and legendary session player Larry Carlton.  Carlton was the special surprise for the night...he only played a couple dates this tour and he's the actual soloist on a bunch of The Royal Scam record, notably playing the solos on "Kid Charlemagne", "Don't Take Me Alive", and the song "The Royal Scam".  The hired-gun young guy (who Fagen introduced as the musical director - i.e. dude's in charge when Fagen/Becker don't make rehearsal, which I'd reckon is pretty often) was really good.  As in, his technical prowess was at a very high level...and he played most of the solos direct from the records as written with a bit of stylistic fiddling.  Becker: same deal; really skilled, played the solos, and improvised well through maybe 15% of the songs...but he was mainly backing up the Gunslinger.  Then there's Larry Carlton.  It was really a treat not only to see this guy play...but also to be able to compare him directly to these two other beasties on stage at the same time.  Carlton is a technical monster as well...but to my mind his individual style really surpassed the other two guys by a mile.  I mean...listen to the Kid Charlemagne solos from the record (which were takes 2 and 1, respectively, of his guitar track).  Mythical shit going on here, enough oatmeal to choke a hippo.

"Kid Charlemagne"

Killer show all around.  We were among the youngest gents there and it was definitely worth our effort.  Super 70s lives on.

Note to Walter Becker:  strongly recommend keeping the soup-cooler permanently closed while on stage.  I'm sure you have tons of other strengths, chief (see above-referenced guitar playing), but please let Donny do both the talking and the singing...

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