Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Steely Dan, the Greek Theatre, Berkeley, 7/26/08

I hadn’t been to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley until this summer, even though I’ve lived in the Bay area four years now. Steely Dan’s set last Saturday was the third show at the Greek I’ve attended this summer, after Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and R.E.M. last month. This was also the third time I’ve seen Steely Dan – saw them also in 2003 and in 1994. They say three is a perfect number…

Anyway, what do you get at a Steely Dan show other than perfection? Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are renowned for creating perfect sounding records, and their concerts are no different. I suppose it can sound boring if you see them too many times, but going nine years or five years between shows keeps it fresh. In this instance, besides pristine sound, playing, arrangements, etc., we got a fun opener in the Joey DeFrancesco trio. He plays the Hammond B3 like nobody’s business, and since Jimmy Smith is gone, Joey’s the modern day torch bearer for the B3’s place in jazz. The set length was just right, the two keyboards and drums trio setting worked surprisingly well (the second keyboardist, Pat Bianchi, kept his volume just a bit lower than Joey’s and complemented him tastefully), and Joey’s tongue-in-cheek reworking of “Got My Mojo Workin’” left us in an upbeat mood, and ready for Becker and Fagen to go all crabby on us.

Actually, Becker himself proved to be a funny guy as well later in the evening.

Here’s how it went down:

The band, sans Becker and Fagen and the backup singers, started the set with a two-song, unedited instrumental medley, so we could have sung along if we liked, but I think I was the only one who attempted that. First up was Everyone’s Gone to the Movies, in a funky arrangement with the melody played on muted trumpet, and a sweet baritone sax solo. This led straight into The Fez, with a cool horn arrangement overtaking the song’s signature keyboard part, and some guitar and alto sax solos. A short drum solo bridged it over to The Royal Scam and a stately opening trumpet solo. It was at this point that out come Becker, Fagen, and two female singers with huge afros. They sounded awesome, and when they were introduced later in the evening, it became very clear why that was so.

Fagen looks like a balding old man who kind of enjoys being old, smirking his way through the years because he can still sing most of his songs in the same key that was comfortable for him when he was younger. Yay to that. Another drum solo fades the song down (are we sensing a pattern here?) and another segue into…

I Got The News
. They were digging deep into their catalog early on, and they just kept on digging! Another drum segue and then…

Showbiz Kids, in a completely different arrangement, much improved over the studio version. A new theme was played to a lightweight James Brown beat, an extra chord was played for the ‘Show business kids makin’ movies of themselves’ line, and then another new chord was added for Becker’s guitar solo. The studio version of “Showbiz Kids” is one of the most boring and disappointing songs in the Steely Dan catalog (musically anyway; lyrics are another story); live, it’s totally redeemed. And after the song’s closing theme, the segue-fest finally ends so Fagen can speak to us. He cheekily proclaimed that “the Think Fast Steely Dan orchestra” would be “playing songs from various stages of our magnificent career,” and he actually wasn’t kidding on that count – every Steely Dan studio album was represented by at least one song (the first three albums and their two recent reunion albums) and as many as five (that honor went to Aja, not surprisingly).

When they played Everything You Did (in a reggae version for a new twist), the line in this jealous lover song that goes “I’m gonna a get a gun / shoot the mother down” reminded me of a story that my guitar teacher told me of a run-in with Becker in a parking lot in New York that sounded awfully similar to the story told in this song. Could it be…?

Two Against Nature was next, and it really breathed with real drums instead of whatever was done with the beat on the studio version. This is another song that I never really cared for in its studio version, but live, Fagen was in the groove, Becker’s solo swung too – it was yet another improvement, with an awesome ‘solo’ spot from the backup singers.

Hey Nineteen was the first hit that we heard in the set. Having seen Steely Dan in the Boston metro area the last two times, it was weird not hearing a huge applause for the “sweet things from Boston” lyric. But hearing Becker riffing on that bit about taking your beloved home and getting her drunk before the ‘Cuervo Gold’ bit was even funnier than when I heard it before. Maybe that’s because Fagen did it last time. Fagen is the voice of Steely Dan when he sings, but Becker just seems more like a naturally engaging storyteller when he speaks.

Godwhacker was the representation for 2003’s Everything Must Go. The breakdown each time on the ‘be very very quiet’ part was a clever touch, and the blues-derived changes set up the bari, tenor, trumpet trombone solos really well.

Fagen then pulled out the disco-fied The New Frontier from his first solo album, which was a good lead-in to the equally faux-funky Glamour Profession. Then came Gaucho in a different key, which seemed strange at first until Becker started singing it instead of Fagen.

At this point, the drum solo bookend pattern that was present at the beginning of the show gave way to a new one. Fagen played a dreamy electric piano solo that led into Home at Last. Then he laid back and let the backup singers take the lead on Parker’s Band. Charlie Parker was pictured on the screen behind the band, but incredibly, there was no sax solo at the end! How can you play a tribute to Charlie Parker and not have your band’s sax player blow a little solo on the alto? Small complaint overall, but still!

When Black Friday started, with its exaggerated shuffle beat, we knew the end was getting near. Fagen returned to his electric piano for another brief solo before the next song, Josie, which sounded like it might have been brought down a half step. Aja, however, was definitely in its original key, and was a high point of the evening.

“It sounds like the ‘60s!” said Becker, as that familiar Motown beat started up and the backup singers teased with a bit of the Supremes’ Love is Like an Itching in my Heart before Becker introduced the band over the band’s vamp. Why were those singers so good? Their names told me everything I needed to know: Cynthia Mizell and Tawatha Agee!! Cynthia sang alongside Lisa Fischer with the Rolling Stones during their Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tour of 1989-90. And Tawatha was the lead singer in Mtume from ’77 till ’86. I always loved her singing on those Mtume records, especially the very first one from ’77, Kiss This World Goodbye, with “Love Lock” and “The Closer I Get To You” (which James Mtume co-wrote with Reggie Lucas for Roberta Flack). But most folks probably recognize her as the lead voice on Mtume's biggest hit, "Juicy Fruit." Here's the video, but alas, no afro (it was the '80s, boo):

Peg and Kid Charlamagne closed the main set… and when they came back for the encore, it was a somber Third World Man that preceded Fagen’s last electric piano mini-solo of the evening. They took us out with Do It Again, and Becker and Fagen walked out to an instrumental as the band kept playing; strangely, the audience started walking out too, before the band even finished! Weirdness.

That’s right, no “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” no “Reeling in the Years,” no “Deacon Blues,” no “Bodhisattva.” It was a fan’s set, for sure, and a thoroughly satisfying one.


Anonymous said...

Are any of the tracks from Becker's "Circus Money" being played at the Steely Dan shows?
Just curious

harmolodic said...

I haven't seen any reports of Circus Money songs being played at other shows, but there were definitely none played in Berkeley. Would have been cool, though.