"Hi there, kids — we're Steely Dan," said Donald Fagen from the stage of Coachella's Outdoor Theatre. Uncle Don and Uncle Wally, as Fagen introduced himself and his bandmate Walter Becker, had come to the desert Friday night to show the youngsters how it's done.
Or had they?
Heading into the festival's first weekend, one idea about Coachella 2015 was that it's putting an inordinate number of old-timers before an audience with an average age of about 20. Along with Steely Dan, the bill features AC/DC, Swans and the 66-year-old soul singer Charles Bradley. (Maybe Raekwon and Ghostface Killah count, too, at this point?)
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Yet one of the first things you noticed Friday (at least if you were standing in the VIP section) was how few kids were watching Steely Dan. Yes, the band's presence here speaks to the way its super-slick jazz-rock has connected with a new generation, a link you could clearly discern later Friday night in a set by Norwegian DJ Todd Terje, who had two drummers and an electric guitarist playing tasty jazz licks.
But Steely Dan's booking also points to Coachella's deliberate cultivation of older, presumably deeper-pocketed attendees willing to shell out for the festival's priciest packages. Put it this way: When a cheer went up in the audience at the opening notes of "Hey Nineteen," it wasn't from people who felt they were being addressed by the song.
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Perhaps that's why Fagen and Becker played what felt like such a typical gig at Coachella — basically an abbreviated version of the deeply enjoyable show they're scheduled to bring to the Santa Barbara Bowl and the Vina Robles Amphitheatre in Paso Robles next week. Backed by a large band that included four horn players and three back-up vocalists, they did "Black Friday" and "Josie" and "My Old School" the way they always do — tightly, efficiently, with plenty of blood but little detectable heart.
Did all this equate to a lost opportunity? Was Steely Dan passing up the chance to illuminate or fortify that intergenerational connection? Maybe those questions are asking different things.
On one hand, Becker and Fagen most definitely seemed to be intentionally passing up the chance to win over any teenagers who might've been nearby. Why else would they skip "Peg," one of their most recognizable songs thanks to De La Soul's prominent sample of it in "Eye Know"? (They did do "Kid Charlemagne," familiar to Kanye West fans from his "Champion.")
But nothing about Steely Dan's performance suggested that they view those teenagers — "guys out there sucking on pacifiers," per Becker's vivid description — as an opportunity worth pursuing. If anything, the group seemed to take a characteristically perverse pleasure in attempting to turn them off, be it through Fagen's extended melodica solo in "Aja" or through playing "Reelin' in the Years," the Steely Dan tune that with no small irony now serves as an advertisement for its old-guy worldview.
"The things you think are precious I can't understand," Fagen sang, which was hogwash, of course. He could understand — he just didn't care to.