Thursday, June 6, 2013

Steely Dan: The World's Coolest Nerds Are Back

Smile, boys! Donald Fagen (left) & Walter Becker - aka Steely Dan
It's strangely comforting to know that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (left), the so-called voices of doom, are once again playing their unique brand of high-I.Q. jazz-rock-soul music. The suave but nerdy/snarky duo known to most as Steely Dan, Walt & Don, who began their musical experiment at Bard College in New York more than 40 years ago, refused for years to perform live. They just wouldn't do it. They toured from 1972 to 1974, then decided to pull a Greta Garbo - or perhaps Dracula - and become an insular, purely studio-based act. Fans like me were pissed, but these two crusty but benign homebodies kept stubbornly declining big-money offers to take their show on the road - even after their popularity skyrocketed in 1977 with the release of Aja, the band's jazz-rock-soul fusion masterpiece.

Steely Dan disbanded four years later, and for the next decade rock's most mercurial twosome pretty much went into hiding. They didn't seem to have any compelling need or desire to regroup. But in the early 90s, they finally brought the Steely Dan brand out of mothballs. When I saw them perform at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles in 1993, it was joyfully surreal. I never thought that day would come. 

But would there be any new music? It didn't appear to be in the cards. Then in 2000, after a nearly 20-year break, The Dan released Two Against Nature, which against impossible odds earned the best album Grammy. It was a very good record, although contrary to what some clueless and incurably pretentious critics might tell you, it isn’t the band’s best. Grammy voters in their infinite wisdom passed on such Dan gems as Can't Buy a Thrill, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and even Aja. But Two Against Nature was still a welcome return of the wry, literate musical auteurs who named their band after a sex toy in a William S. Burroughs novel. 

Over the last four decades Becker and Fagen have taken Steely Dan's sound in a few different musical directions, from brainy rock with guitarists du jour (Denny Dias, Elliot Randall, Jeff Skunk Baxter) to jazz. But they’ve always managed to simultaneously keep old fans happy and recruit new devotees by skillfully wrapping mordant, ambiguous lyrics, intricate time signatures and complex jazz chords around impossibly catchy rock and soul hooks. Yes, the real key to Becker and Fagen's success and longevity isn't their aloofness, it is in fact the utter accessibility of their melodies.

Walt and Don are a study in contradictions. Eclectic, cynical, sarcastic, and detached yet deeply soulful, passionate, funny, and demonstrably happy to still be playing music together, Becker and Fagen, who as Steely Dan were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, are coasting a bit now. But they even do that with more panache and humor than most. And no one's complaining. Steely Dan enjoys an incredibly loyal fan base. And the concerts, which are annoyingly among the most expensive you'll find, still sell out fast. 

The boys recently announced that they're hitting the bricks again starting next month for a major tour - Mood Swings Tour 2013 - that will last into the fall. They'll be performing here in San Diego at Humphrey's Concerts By the Bay on Aug. 21.

Walt and Don will be joined by eight remarkable supporting musicians who now call themselves The Bipolar Allstars - Keith Carlock on drums, Freddie Washington on bass, Jim Beard on keyboards, and Jon Herington on guitar) - along with The Borderline Brats, three very soulful and sublime singers. 

It promises to be another pleaser for the Steely Dan faithful, who, like fans of so many bands that evolve over the years, fall into several camps. There are the stalwart older fans who love the more guitar-heavy first few albums, there are the fans who embraced Steely Dan when they became a more jazzy outfit, and there are fans like me who love both incarnations.

When I pay to see Steely Dan perform live I hope and expect to hear "both" bands. And for the most part they give me what I want. But could they rock a bit more? Yes. Do they focus a bit too much on the jazz side and not enough on those amazing early rock songs? Yes. When I saw them on that '93 reunion tour, for example, they did a slowed-down, jazzed-up version of Reelin' in the Years. It was awful. Yes, I booed. This is one of the great guitar songs of all time. Don't mess with perfection, guys. 


  1. I'm thinking about what to say here ... hmm ... back later .... but only a fool would say that.

    1. regarding your post, bob: please "do it again."

    2. Bob, you never returned to write your reply. I just noticed Steely Dan is back on tour again this year but they are not coming to San Diego. Ugh!