LIVE: Steely Dan @ SPAC, 6/30/18
Review by Steven Stock
In his entertaining and often sardonic memoir “Eminent Hipsters,” Donald Fagen expresses some ambivalence about his audience, but when Steely Dan hits the road the man aims to please. The downside to this is we get pretty much the same set list every damn year – even though the ensemble is well acquainted with the back catalog, from playing entire albums during long stands at New York’s Beacon Theatre (as they’ll do again this fall).
The upside? A great band playing some of the most inventive and harmonically sophisticated pop/rock music you’ll ever hear. This year’s model at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center featured 11 players: Fagen on keyboards (often favoring his melodica), Jim Beard doubling on the 88s, the exquisite Jon Herington on guitar, mighty Keith Carlock on drums, Freddie Washington on bass, four horns and two backing singers.
With so much firepower at his disposal Fagen’s prowess as an arranger was readily evident. Herington’s teasing fretwork on “Hey Nineteen” preceded an emphatic trombone solo from Jim Pugh. “Aja” lost its dreamy intro but none of its impact, Fagen’s melodica yielding to the sax section (Walt Weiskopf on tenor, Roger Rosenberg on alto) before Carlock unleashed an epic flurry of drumming that had the crowd on its feet. “Black Cow” gave Beard a chance to cut loose with a tasty Fender Rhodes solo.
Even in his youth Fagen was never Tony Bennett, and nowadays there’s some notes he can’t quite get to, so he cleverly uses the backing singers to more or less mask his vocal deficiencies on “Kid Charlemagne” and “Time Out of Mind,” for instance. That said, Fagen’s performance on “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was actually quite affecting and effective. Carolyn Leonhart and LaTonya Hall (known affectionately as The Danettes) took over lead vocal duties for a lovely version of “Dirty Work,” which also featured a pithy trumpet solo from Binghamton native Tony Kadleck.
23-year-old Woodstock resident Connor Kennedy, from Fagen’s 2017 side project The Nightflyers, ambled onstage late in the set and added some dazzling guitar to “Bodhisattva” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” the latter also boasting a lengthy drum solo from Carlock. “Pretzel Logic” was an ironic finale, Fagen having written the opening lines – “I would love to tour the southland/In a traveling minstrel show” – only months before forsaking Steely Dan tours altogether for 19 years following a performance at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on July 5, 1974. Now he enjoys touring so much that he has two bands: Steely Dan for the lucrative summer shed circuit and stands at the Beacon; the Nightflyers for smaller club gigs.
Tour mates the Doobie Brothers sure know how to work a crowd, and their opening set was well-received. Founding members Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston frequently wandered to the very edge of the stage, engaging the audience while they played well-executed guitar solos. Marc Russo on sax likewise elicited an almost Pavlovian response from the Doobie fans when he milked his high notes.
More appealing was the multi-instrumental contribution of John McFee, who joined the band in 1978 after playing with Van Morrison, Steve Miller and on Elvis Costello’s first album. Love that pedal steel! Little Feat’s Bill Payne, who first guested with the Doobies on their second album way back in ’72, sounded great on keyboards, especially during “Takin’ It to the Streets.”
STEELY DAN SET LIST
Green Flower Street
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Time Out of Mind
My Old School
Keep That Same Old Feeling
Reelin’ in the Years
A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry