I learned to love Steely Dan through the influence of Robert Christgau’s short clever record reviews in the Village Voice. So enamored with their work, they seemingly became his standard to judge everything else by. (FYI: The Christgau Record Guide rates the first four Steely Dan LPs all in the “A” category.) I started with Katy Lied and soon wore out its grooves. There I first learned that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, two Bard College literature majors with a love for jazz, had a lot more to offer than just their Top Forty hits I was hearing. Together they crafted a lasting legacy of refreshing and satisfying jazzy-sounding, but indisputably great rock songs.
After some brief touring in their early days, the duo retreated into the studio abandoning the road for over 20 years. (My wait was even longer, and I did not see them live until their Nashville shows at Starwood in 2006 and Fontanel in 2011.) This year’s Jamalot Ever After tour included a two-night debut at the Ryman. With a top ticket price of $250, this was a tough one for the price-sensitive ticket buyer. In fact, some Music City fans bickered that they would just see local tribute band Twelve Against Nature sometime instead.
As expected, the Ryman show was an example of perfect musical execution. Fagen and Becker simply have a knack for finding the best players to work with. Fagen, looking like a guy who would sell you a suit in Lower Manhattan, was out front in fine vocal form. Becker, looking like a guy you’d meet at Comic Con, on the other hand was somewhat subtle on guitar. He may have even stretched a bit for acknowledgement with an out-of-place lead vocal and a rather dull comical rap during a break in “Hey Nineteen.”
I left the show overjoyed but feeling that song wise they may have played things a bit too safe. So far on this tour they have stuck to a fairly tight set list of fan favorites. Nashville did get a regionalized swap of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” for the Alabama Crimson Tide referenced “Deacon Blues,” and the second night’s show would feature four different songs. I guess what disappointed me most was that the deep song selections turned out to be the night’s weakest moments. “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” and “Razor Boy” were both disappointingly sung by Walter Becker and the backup singers, respectively, instead of by Fagen.
This many years since their heyday, I am truly amazed that I even get to see this brilliant ensemble play live. Sadly, there have been only two Steely Dan records in the last 34 years, and tonight only one song (“Godwhacker”) was played from them. I long to think that these guys could still do more than just relive their classic songs. At least hearing some deeper album cuts would keep things more fresh and lively. Robert Christgau and I will be waiting.
About the crowd, there were still one too many noisy and dorky-dancing nut jobs, but overall they were much better behaved than at my last Steely Dan experience.
- Cubano Chant (Ray Bryant cover) (band instrumental)
- Black Cow
- Hey Nineteen
- Black Friday
- Deacon Blues
- Show Biz Kids
- Time Out of Mind
- Babylon Sisters
- Razor Boy (lead vocals by The Danettes)
- Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More (lead vocals by Walter Becker)
- I Want To (Do Everything for You) (Joe Tex cover) (lead vocals by The Danettes)
- My Old School
- Reelin’ in the Years
- Kid Charlemagne
- The Untouchables: Theme (Nelson Riddle cover) (band instrumental)
Donald Fagen—lead vocals and keyboards
Walter Becker—rhythm and lead electric guitar
Jon Herington—lead guitar
Roger Rosenberg—Baritone Saxophone
The Danettes (backing vocals):
La Tanya Hall