When Steely Dan went back on the road in the early 90s, nearly 20 years after giving it up, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker suggested that one of the reasons was that the business had changed enough so that they could exercise a lot more control over where they went and how often they played, instead of being at the mercy of label executives and concert promoters. But even if those new circumstances had prevailed circa 1980, in the days of Aja and Gaucho, you gotta wonder how much the two would have enjoyed the experience, given that their notorious studio perfectionism would have been a hard thing to duplicate on the road.
I submit that after years of semi-regular touring, Steely Dan has achieved the same sort of perfection onstage that they sought in the studio back in the day. The band that backs Walt and Don, eight musicians and three singers, is largely unchanged over many years. Several of the players who were onstage last Sunday night in Milwaukee were in the band when we saw the Dan for the first time, in 2000: horn players Michael Leonhart, and Jim Pugh, guitarist Jon Herington, and singer Carolyn Leonhart. Sax player Walt Weiskopf and drummer Keith Carlock have been members since 2003. Not only do these people back Steely Dan; they also support the Dukes of September, the Fagen/Michael McDonald/Boz Scaggs agglomeration that has toured a couple of times in recent years. So they’re used to playing Walt and Don’s stuff night by night, and their experience shows.
Herington and Carlock are absolute monster players. Herington is a Becker/Fagen discovery (although he’s nearly as old as Walt and Don themselves) and has played on their various projects since 1995. Carlock is a major New York studio cat who, with Steely Dan, found himself in the unenviable position of having to play parts made famous by other major studio cats, including Bernard Purdie and Steve Gadd—and who’s more than up to it, positively blowing up on several occasions Sunday night.
So when you go to see Steely Dan (and Sunday night was our third time, fourth if you count the Dukes last summer), you’re seeing the best players in the business doing what they’ve done for a mighty long time. You know exactly what you’re getting. If the show lacks spontaneity—and even a fan has to admit that it does—it makes up for it in musicianship and the kind of songs that best show it off.
On the subject of spontaneity, I’m always amused by Walt and Don’s banter with the audience. While some of the customers eat it up, I wonder if praising us as a great audience or urging us to drive home safely isn’t a piss-take—that they’re playacting at rock star as dictated by the time and the place. They’ve always been curmudgeons and fabulously difficult interview subjects (see their grumpy sitdown with Rolling Stone recently), and have never given much of a damn about showbiz-type conventions. That they might suddenly mellow a bit in their mid 60s is possible—but if they have indeed mellowed, there’s not a great deal of evidence for it elsewhere. Certainly not in the Rolling Stone interview, where Fagen is critical of their audiences. (Buyer beware, however: Fagen disliked the tone of the published interview enough to post a rebuttal on his Facebook page.)
On some nights of the current tour, the band is going to play whole albums, including Aja, Gaucho, and The Royal Scam. Our show was advertised as a “greatest hits” show, so we had a pretty good idea what we were going to hear. The only unexpected moments were the show opener, “Your Gold Teeth”; a single non-heyday song, “Godwhacker” from the 2003 album Everything Must Go; and a version of “Razor Boy” sung by the backup singers, who usually do “Dirty Work.” The ornate “Aja” is always a highlight; the show closers “My Old School” and “Reelin’ in the Years” were powerful. But even the warhorses I feel like I never need to hear again—“Bodhissatva,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Josie”—sounded fabulous, probably because in the end, all attempts at dispassionate analysis aside, I’m just a Steely Dan fanboy.