On July 3, I took the ferry across the Delaware to the BB&T Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater in Camden, NJ, where I was treated to an evening of jazz, blues and R&B with Steely Dan and special guest Steve Winwood.
Steely Dan has always been a kind of thinking man’s band due to their complex, jazz-influenced sound, and lyrics that include obscure literary references (the band’s name itself comes from a William Burroughs novel). The band’s creative core, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and have been playing music together for 50 years.
Becker informed the crowd that we were seeing “the best musicians ever assembled for Steely Dan.” Given some of the talented performers who have been associated with the band over the years, that’s a pretty extraordinary statement.
The band formed in 1972, with a phenomenal group of musicians, including guitarists Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (subsequently of the Doobie Brothers), and Denny Dias, with Jim Hodder on drums. Over the years, many more have been involved. The turnover may have occurred because Fagen and Becker were avid perfectionists in the studio, always looking for just the right sound. Their technical micromanagement of songs was legendary, and extended to the use of a diverse array of session players on their albums. For instance, there were reportedly 42 musicians who played on the album Goucho, which featured a grand total of seven songs.
While the studio sound was sometimes breathtaking, such as with the pristine jazz fusion character of the album Katy Lied, Fagen and Becker remained perpetually dissatisfied. Their purist aesthetic may have initially been a strength, but with a revolving door of musicians it evolved into a weakness that affected band cohesion.
The band had some bad experiences playing live music in the ’70s. Some thought this was because the group didn’t rehearse enough to accommodate its highly demanding material. Fagen and Becker have also reported that they never felt entirely comfortable on stage.
Regardless, the lack of touring opportunities drove other founding musicians away, and Steely Dan stopped performing live after 1974, when Fagen and Becker asserted that they wanted to focus exclusively on the studio. The band broke up in 1981, although they reformed and began touring again in the ’90s.
Someone could write a fascinating book about the experiences of Steely Dan, whose story reads like a soap opera. Throughout a tumultuous history, Fagen and Becker maintained creative control and today continue to define the group.
The current incarnation of Steely Dan is comfortably faithful to the old sound. Fagen mostly plays the piano, but also offered up some plastic organ with its funky slide effect, as with his classic solo in “Do it Again.” Fagen is a self-taught keyboardist, who refined his jazz harmonies by going to see Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis when he was developing as a musician.
Fagen clearly still enjoys the music, and although his voice has grown slightly husky, he still bounces with the music and tilts his head back while he’s playing, which was reminiscent of Stevie Wonder.
Becker mostly hangs back and plays guitar, offering an occasional solo, although the jazz scales still flow from him at times. Today’s lead guitarist is Jon Herrington, who has played with Boz Scaggs and others, and is spectacularly talented. He may be better than Skunk Baxter. Herrington’s series of solos during “My Old School” were probably the highlight of the show for me.
At one point, Becker addressed the crowd with a whacky freestyle monologue. He talked about drinking tequila back in college (“what’s that drink, with the worm in it?”), waxed expansive on the band, and punned, as when he referred to the “pinochle of our careers.” He displayed a playfulness that had a slightly sarcastic edge.
This is of course entirely in keeping with what you would expect from a couple of eccentric guys who attended Bard College and wrote whimsical lyrics, as in the song “Aja,” when Fagen sang,
“Chinese music always sets me free, angular banjos sound good to me.”
Steely Dan’s has a trio of backup singers, anchored by Carolyn Leonhart, who has appeared on both Fagen’s and Becker’s solo albums and has toured with Steely Dan for 16 years. Their rich, textured harmonies in “Black Cow” took me back to when I first heard the album Aja back in the 70s.
Keith Carlock is the band’s current drummer, and has been playing with them for 20 years. I enjoyed his smooth delivery and the crisp tempos on “Black Friday.”
So is this the best collection of musicians ever for a Steely Dan ensemble? While the current lineup may give Skunk Baxter Denny Dias, and Larry Carlton a run for their money, it could be a matter of personal taste.
Steely Dan is doing some shows this fall where they will play a few of their albums (Aja, Goucho, Countdown to Ecstasy) in their entirety, so if you enjoyed those albums that would be a great experience.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Steely Dan, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the opening act, Steve Winwood. I was familiar with his work in Traffic and Blind Faith, and his distinctive tenor and keyboard skills are still top notch. He had a minimalist group with him, consisting of a guitarist, a couple of percussionists and, perhaps curiously, no bass player.
Highlights for me were “Can’t Find My Way Home,” from Winwood’s Blind Faith days, and the sprawling “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” which he recorded with Traffic. Winwood switched back and forth between the keyboard and guitar and had the crowd on its feet a few times.
Overall, this was a great show, featuring two bands that have made a significant contribution to American music. Go see them!
— David Foulke, Philadelphia, PA