LIVE: “Reelin’ in the Years: A Night of Steely Dan Music” @ Bearsville Theater, 6/5/15
I’ll be honest: I’ve never understood the allure of tribute bands. It’s always been my position that if it’s not the real thing, you’re wasting your money. That said, between the high cost and low frequency of major bands taking it on the road, I can see why people go for the next best thing. And when it comes to Steely Dan, who tour about as often as Presidents get elected, any chance to see the music done live – and done well – is one to be grabbed with both hands. Producer/bassist Scott Petito’s heartfelt Woodstock all-star tribute to the music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan literally filled the Bearsville Theater stage with both talent and love. And the audience was packed with Steely devotees eager to see the results.
If you’re going to start anywhere, you should start at the beginning, and that’s how it went, with the sneaky-sexy shuffle of “Do It Again.” Jules Shear and Gail Ann Dorsey shared the vocals as Petito led his seven-piece band (which would grow to 13 strong before long) right down the middle, putting paid to my theory that some creative license might be attempted with the source material. Not a chance: Matt Finck’s guitar solo was basically note-for-note and tone-for-tone with the original recording, and all Petito needed was a set of congas and some chimes to get the full picture. In any case, this crowd had zero interest in any reboots of the tunes they grew up on; if anything, Petito could have done this show as live-action karaoke, because almost everyone in the audience was belting out every lyric with unequivocal gusto.
Finck was one of several unannounced “secret weapons” deployed over the course of the evening. One of them, Hall of Fame drummer Rick Marotta, recorded three albums with Steely. Petito’s grin was a mile wide when he told us, “You know what it’s like to be a bass player playing between Jerry & Rick Marotta?” Jerry Marotta was part of the core group that had developed this tribute over the previous two months, (and he was the same killer all-rounder I’d seen far too many years ago with Peter Gabriel), tacking solid lead vocals onto “My Old School” and “Cousin Dupree” that even had a bit of Fagen’s hard-edged phrasing. The only thing onstage matching that attitude was the rip-snorting guitar of Jesse Gress, who eagerly tackled the snarling sound that powered Steely flag-wavers like “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Don’t Take Me Alive.”
To my mind, it’s not the slick production values that put Steely Dan above most main courses on the musical menu; it’s that all of Becker & Fagen’s recordings are built on rock-solid foundations that don’t just knock on your door – they kick that sucker right off its hinges. Between the Marotta brothers’ drums and Petito’s booming bass, pieces as diverse as the party tune “Josie” and the stream-of-brain-bruised-consciousness “Pretzel Logic” got the home-run power they needed. Add in a muscle-flexing horn section of trumpeter Chris Pasin, tenorman Ken Geoffre and altoist Erik Lawrence, and big production numbers like “Black Friday” and the breakneck encore “Bodhisattva” were as T-Rex big as they should have been.
That doesn’t mean nuance went out the window; the little things make a big difference to Steely Dan fans, too – like the off-hand spoken sections of “Hey Nineteen” and the “so outrageous” vocal add-ons to the rideout on “Black Cow.” All of these were handled with great aplomb by the self-described “chick singers” Leslie Ritter and Kat Mills, both of whom nailed their own respective solo spots on “Dirty Work” and “Josie.” (Mills also gets props for her deft use of props on “Nineteen.”) The keyboard work of Peter Primamore and Jonny Roush was spot-on, with Roush literally hitting just the right note with an electric melodica on “Nineteen” and “Time Out of Mind”; Roush also stepped out of the Steely mainstream to add a seriously nasty blues harp to “Black Friday.”
Of all these great performers, the one that left me wanting much more was Gail Ann Dorsey. The bass player for David Bowie and Lenny Kravitz stuck to vocals for most of the night, but that was more than enough. On a night when the male vocals were hit-and-mess (partially due to Jerry blowing out his chords in rehearsal), Dorsey’s star turns were nothing but riveting. Her charisma and magnetism was off the charts as she embodied the “bookkeeper’s son” of “Don’t Take Me Alive”, the slick hipster of “Black Cow”, and the just-paranoid-enough drug dealer of the second-set-closing “Kid Charlemagne.”
As dynamic as Dorsey was, though, I’d have no problem seeing this entire crew return for whatever wild homage Petitio puts together next time around. Even when things got rough, nobody ever stopped having a great time, and that constant flow of joy made the night even better for all of us who grew up with Steely Dan, and will carry their music with us right to the end.