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Steely Dan @ Gibson Amphitheater 8/22/09
Donald Fagen's dentist is in the front row, photo from the Beacon Theater in New York last month, by Podbay via Flickr.
Previewing Steely Dan’s latest visit to LA for LAist last month, in talking about their three-night run in which a different full-length LP from their catalog would be performed in entirety on consecutive nights, I called the 1980 release Gaucho their "least compelling album." By coincidence or conspiracy, that was the work being celebrated on the night I ended up getting a ticket to review. It might sound paranoid, but those guys are such famous control freaks, I wouldn't put it past them to personally approve all the journalists' requests for tickets. I can imagine Donald and Walter sitting there in the press office going, "This guy? He thinks Royal Scam is OK but claims Gaucho is their 'least compelling album.' Well, so.... "
"That remark really speaks for itself."
"Perhaps the best thing we could do for him is provide an opportunity to expand his understanding."
"We'll just compel the hell out of him. Physically."
"He can write all about how it feels to be compelled into submission."
"Until his organs are lying pell-mell around the dell."
More likely, it's because the opening night featuring Aja was sold out while there were still a fair number of seats available for this show. Turns out I’m not alone in my estimation. But it all works out, because they did indeed compel the hell out of me. Physically.
Part of the problem with the original LP has to do with the production. It sounds odd to criticize a Steely Dan album for being “too slick”, but it really was the one that pushed a lot of people over the edge. After honing their studio approach for a decade they’d reached a state where their recordings sounded so impossibly pristine that one critic reported that Gaucho had been recorded “in a hospital room”. But with the added urgency of a hot 11-piece band working in the moment, the inherent quality of the songs finally came through. While the two opening tracks, "Babylon Sisters" and "Hey 19" are still the best things on it, the others were helped a lot by sharp, sympathetic performances. "Time Out Of Mind" became a highlight, bristling with energy, while the title track was more suitably languid and downcast.
The rest of the set was a mix of big hits ("Peg", "Josie", "Reelin' In The Years", "Kid Charlemagne", "Black Friday") and favored album tracks. A tense, menacing "Show Biz Kids" was given a subdued intro, springing to life as guitarist Jon Herrington made mincemeat of the guitar solo and the trio of female backup singers stepped up to warn us about "show business kids making movies of themselves/ You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else." "Bodhissatva" sparkled our China, the energetic height of an all-round great show. As ever, the musicianship is flawless, and occasionally stunning, with drummer Keith Carlock inspiring a large number of "whoa!" moments in the seats.
The notoriously resigned pair seemed seemed in good humor as well, Becker chuckling his way through the little spoken moments in "Hey 19" - "Sure looks good!" - to great applause, and Fagen periodically leaping up to conduct the big finishes with a passionate sweep of his hand. Though they're not exactly song-and-dance men, the Dan do have a strange sort of stage presence. Donald Fagen looks exactly the characters he's singing about as he opens wide and lets the cynical, overburdened soul flow out over a craggy set of chompers, his eyes (probably squinty) hiding behind sunglasses. He looks like the band's whole vibe, which reveals an extremely tense person who's trying desperately to relax and not quite getting there. The surfaces are all calm and lovely, but there's something a bit sinister lurking underneath. It's that subtext that makes them so much more than a jazzier Toto, or a Weather Report with pop hooks. They really are a unique invention, and even if it seems they've lost the inspiration to keep producing new work together, it's still nice to have them around to play it for us.