The Onion’s A.V. Club recently proposed the “five albums test” as a measure of an artist’s greatness. Under the rubric, any artist with five or more classic albums joins a rarified club of rock greats – but the albums must be released consecutively.
That means, according to the author, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, Neil Young and Springsteen are in the club. But other greats – like Dylan and the Stones – are denied, due to sequential inconsistency in their discographies.
Steely Dan makes the cut. You could argue that their first six albums – from 1972’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill” to 1977’s “Aja” – are consistently great from start to finish. (1980’s “Gaucho” – although critically acclaimed at the time – drops the ball a bit, but still contains one of the group’s biggest hits, “Hey Nineteen.”)
It’s no small feat, and one of the best arguments to make in favor of the band when contending with the legions of Steely Dan haters out there – the music fans who scorn them for being too slick, too pompous, too whatever.
(Plus, any band sampled in so many hip-hop songs, from the “Black Cow”-borrowing Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz hit “Déjà vu (Uptown Baby)” to Kanye West’s “Kid Charlemagne” rework, “Champion,” deserves some serious coolness-points.)
At Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Steely Dan performed last Tuesday with their “Steely Dan Shuffle Diplomacy Twenty Eleven” lineup, you didn’t have to look too far to be reminded of the Steely Dan slags in Judd Apatow’s film, “Knocked Up.”
“I don’t think you’d get into a Steely Dan concert without wine and cheese,” actor Seth Rogen said in the movie, and on the well-groomed Tanglewood lawn – a Sauvignon Blanc scene if there ever was one – he’d be right. (Meanwhile as the crowd filtered in during the Sam Yahel Organ Trio’s opening set of progressive jazz, the venue’s country club-esque “tent club” bar served up “Stoli Dan” vodka coolers.)
You could argue that such a well-heeled setting is the perfect place to see Steely Dan. Just as depression and ennui are often said to lurk beneath the surface in otherwise picture-perfect suburban families, Steely Dan’s brilliant pop sense and perfectionist arrangements barely conceal the vacuity and hedonism called out in their lyrics.
As Steely Dan demonstrated at Tanglewood, there’s a lot of room for putting on a less than perfect show (sound glitches, Walter Becker’s rambling monologues, what seemed like perfunctory, but distracting, opportunities for band members to solo within nearly every song) when your set is full of genius tunes.
They hit a lot of their career highlights during the show, from the emotionally-evocative opener, “Aja,” to the wickedly Bard-bashing “My Old School.” A trio of singers added beautiful backup to “Dirty Work” and “Babylon Sisters,” and set closers “Reelin’ In the Years” and “Kid Charlemagne” had people up in the aisles, dancing.
Throughout it all, Steely Dan co-leader Donald Fagan, in blind-man glasses and black blazer, never disappointed as the frontman who perfectly conveys all the world-weary cynicism that bubbles beneath the surface of the band’s polished musical front.
Review by Kirsten Ferguson
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
STEELY DAN SET LIST
Dizzy’s Bidness (band only)
Your Gold Teeth
Time Out of Mind
Show Biz Kids
Papa Don’t Take No Mess (James Brown)
My Old School
Reelin’ in the Years
Last Tango in Paris (Gato Barbieri) (band only)