Concert Review: Steely Dan in Danbury, CT
Steely Dan, fronted by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, contributed heavily to the soundtrack of the 1970s with a unique style that was decidedly jazz-infused, but nonetheless embraced tightly by rock radio. In fact, "FM," a 1978 film about a Los Angeles rock radio station helped permanently fuse both that Steely Dan song, and to an extent the group itself, to a generation of now 40- and 50-something fans who ecstatically flocked to see their concerts.
But since the band began touring regularly -- Steely Dan has mounted six tours since 2000 -- some of their most ardent fans, as well as curious first-timers who only knew the band from their vacuum-tight studio hits, have left those shows disappointed...even angry.
That's because Steely Dan, or its two founding partners, decided to monkey with the material, re-tooling sections or entire arrangements that may have been more fun or interesting to perform, but were not the songs a generation of devotees knew intimately.
Thankfully, the band has apparently come around to realize that the music they recorded is generally the music fans want to hear, and are acting accordingly on their "Shuttle Diplomacy" tour which made a stop into the Danbury, Connecticut Ives Concert Park July 25.
Now every number of their 18-song setlist wasn't played note-for-note to the original that evening, but they've reversed a trend where just a few songs featured slight variations, and only "Show Biz Kids," was virtually unrecognizable until the vocals began. This switch back to the pure formats, or close to original arrangements, made this the best sounding and evidently most crowd pleasing tour of the past 11 years.
Steely Dan has assembled a supporting crew, billed as The Miles High Big Band 2011 featuring The Embassy Brats, that includes Jim Beard on keys, Keith Carlock on drums, Jon Herington on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass, along with a crack horn section comprised of Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Jim Pugh on trombone, Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax and Walt Weiskopf on sax.
The show opened with the instrumental "Dizzy's Bidness," which gave the sound crew a chance to be sure all the various instruments were trimmed into perfect balance, before Fagen and Becker sauntered out and launched into a breathy, note-perfect "Aja." Then, the hammering on Fagen's Fender Rhodes hooked astute fans in the crowd immediately soliciting applause for "Black Friday."
"Your Gold Teeth," provided flawless delivery to an extremely complex arrangement that highlighted Beard's piano work -- and you know when a piano player brings along his Steinway grand on tour that he's got some serious business to do.
After Pugh got to work out some of his chops on "Hey 19," the trio of "Brats" -- backing vocalists Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, Cindy Mizelle, and Catherine Russell -- stepped into the spotlight to lend lead vocals to "Dirty Work," while Leonhart nailed the trademark horn lick and then threw in a tasty solo for good measure.
Up to this point, Becker had been holding back both figuratively and literally, choosing to play rhythm to Herington's almost inhumanly perfect leads and fills, standing in the shadows back near the drums. But by "Time Out of Mind" and "Show Biz Kids," rolled out, he was teasing a few more solos while moving a bit closer to the audience.
Carlock's cracking snare drum signaled "Bodhisattva," which not only had Becker fully engaged on guitar, but also brought many of those 50-something concert-goers to their feet. This was another number that was spot-on to the original until the band moved into the solo section, where it departed into a provocative alternating minor key progression that, in hindsight, was more of a compliment than a detriment.
For the old James Brown number, "Papa Don't Take No Mess," Becker stepped up to the microphone to serve as a jive talking raconteur, leading each musician through their own instrumental solo before segueing into "Monkey in Your Soul," which was a good choice for his own turn as lead vocalist.
Back-to-back renditions of "Josie" and "Peg" re-tapped "Aja," which also yielded "Black Cow" during the encore, leaving the band to round out its satisfying set with another pair of their biggest hits, "My Old School" and "Reelin' In the Years."
The next few weeks will see the band landing at certain venues for multi-night runs that include performances of "Aja" in its entirety, or "By Popular Demand..." shows that depend on fan votes to pick the setlist.
Steely Dan's seven-night run at New York's Beacon Theatre will culminate in front-to-back performances of "Goucho" and "The Royal Scam" on select nights, as well as a rarities night, a show of very early creations dubbed "Dawn of the Dan," and a night of more recent works called, "21st Century Dan."