Halfway into Steely Dan's set at Merriweather Post Pavilion Tuesday, the band had already busted out the big guns: "Aja" (with studio-quality drum solo), "Hey Nineteen," "Showbiz Kids." And now they were playing "Bodhisattva." Apparently, many people were too busy to look up from their smartphones and watch. At least one person was sleeping in the front row of the lawn seats.
I had been interested to see what it's like to be immersed in a sea of Steely Dan T-shirts. Steely Dan is a polarizing band, especially if you're going to delve more than a few songs into their deep catalog. Frontman Donald Fagan's voice takes some getting used to, no doubt, and if you're not listening closely, the sound can veer dangerously close to smooth jazz.
Anybody who professes to be a Major Dude can probably tell you about a barroom argument about whether the band is totally lame or incredibly awesome. I have argued the latter on several occasions, and I imagined it would take some conviction to buy Steely Dan tickets. But the audience didn't show it.
The band held up its end of the bargain. Fagan owned the show. His voice sounded better - raspier, but more powerful - than it did in the studio 30 years ago. He got up from his keyboard on several occasions and played the
with fervor. Fagan was an animated leader for an excellent backup ensemble. Walter Becker, the guitarist who is the other half of Steely Dan's core duo, was less impressive. He spent a good part of the show leaning on a stool set back on the stage, and ceded much of the heavy lifting to tour guitarist
Musically, the band bailed him out, but the crowd's reaction was metered. The audience responded best to "My Old School," the second-to-last song of the set.
I had not realized that number was such a favorite. Everybody stood, sang along, and clapped in time during the bridge/breakdown toward the end. Still, people were headed for the exits before the band finished its encore - a classic "Kid Charlemagne" spiced up with some really complex action from the horn section.
Maybe people had come to relax. It was an older crowd. But this was not a show that was intended to be relaxing.
The band lent a fullness to many of the songs that isn't present in the studio takes (and Steely Dan is a great studio band). I certainly hope they'll come around again with The Embassy Brats, a trio of backup female vocalists who provided a depth of vocal range throughout the show that allowed Fagan to shine.
The Brats got a moment to themselves when the band played James Brown's "Papa Don't Take No Mess," which was a fun take, if a little glossy. I'm always up for some JB, and it gave Becker an opportunity to introduce the rest of the band. They deserved it.
Becker didn't stand up until midway through the second full song. He took a solo during "Aja" and the crowd responded enthusiastically. His best moment was probably during a call and response with Fagan's wind piano.
During "Hey Nineteen", he took a few minutes to relay a weird description of the types of things that may happen to patrons after the show, which involved traveling to “a trailer down by the railroad tracks.” In short, he promised that couples would find the two things that would become the refrain of the song, things that would “invoke the specter of past pleasures."
“The Cuervo gold, the fine Colombian, make tonight a wonderful thing.”
A little freaky, but the crowd dug it and everybody sang along. He should have done more. Fagan, by contrast, was with it the whole time. I don't think I heard a wrong note from the backup band all night. Kieth Carlock was explosive on the drums. But as much as a backup band could do, the people came there to see two men, and they didn't get all of Walter Becker.
During the frantic, faithful take on the classic "Bodhisattva," a man stood up in the crowd and yelled, “Stand up, please!” I wondered if he was hoping to reach Becker or the people surrounding him who continued to sit still and watch.
Your Gold Teeth
Everything Must Go
Time out of Mind
(Can't confirm this, but it was likely I Got the News)
Show Biz Kids
Papa Don't Take No Mess (James Brown cover)
My Old School Reelin' in the Years