Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Review by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass.) – It’s hard to believe we had to wait until the year 2011 to see Steely Dan at Tanglewood, but it was worth it, because it was perfect. Which isn’t any surprise, because Steely Dan is all about perfection. If things aren’t perfect, they don’t play, and bandleader Donald Fagen even gave the crowd at Tanglewood on Tuesday night a quick demonstration of this when he made the band stop playing “Hey 19” until the sound engineers could fix a crackling sound in his monitor.
Steely Dan is about perfection in other ways, too. The group is so perfect that it isn’t even a band – it’s just the nom-de-guerre of Donald Fagen and co-writer and guitarist Walter Becker and their 40-odd year corpus of songs, a repertoire that stacks up well against just about any group from the rock era.
It isn’t a band because it’s an ideal that exists in Fagen’s mind, the Platonic ideal of a jazzy, noirish R&B ensemble. For most of its hit-making years in the 1970s, Steely Dan was a studio creation, hired hands that fleshed out Fagen and Becker’s taut, funky musical constructions that make little to no sense on paper – with their odd jazz chords and unexpected modulations they just shouldn’t work, but somehow they do. It took him something like two decades actually to assemble a group of musicians he believed in enough to tour with.
Fagen didn’t even have in mind to be lead singer of his own band, but after several other vocalists failed to cut it, and his own tentative attempts at singing lead resulted in big hits, Fagen’s slight, cynical sneer became the voice of the band.
So it was no surprise that the Tanglewood concert was perfect. If it wasn’t going to be perfect, there wouldn’t have been a concert. Fagen and Becker brought four horn players, an amazing drummer, another keyboardist, a terrific bassist, three female backup vocalists Fagen dubbed The Embassy Brats, and a stupendous lead guitarist, who could go off on his own when he had to, or play perfect, note-by-note renditions of the original complicated leads on classic-rock hits like “Reeling in the Years.”
Fagen and Becker as a creative and personal duo are forever a mystery, a study in contrasts. Fagen dressed in a black suit, wearing aviator shades, emoting through every pore of his body at the keyboard and boogieing across the stage when he got up to play the melodica, looking like a made man from The Sopranos; Becker seemingly indifferent to all that was going around him, looking like a stand-in for Jerry Garcia in a Grateful Dead tribute band, even reading from a script (presumably written by Fagen) the few times he directly he addressed the audience.
If they made a movie of Steely Dan, Fagen would be played by Al Pacino; Becker by that fat guy Zach something who’s in all those dumb hangover comedies.
The guys dug deep in their catalog and for long stretches avoided familiar hits in favor of album cuts that even some longtime fans couldn’t identify. The list of hits and favorites they didn’t play is astounding as a testament to their incredible body of work: “FM,” “Deacon Blues,” “The Royal Scam,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Do It Again,” and on and on.
But we did get to hear “Aja,” the aforementioned “Hey Nineteen,” “Josie,” “Babylon Sisters,” “Dirty Work,” “Peg,” “Kid Charlemagne,” and “Reeling in the Years.” Near the end, “My Old School,” seemingly as always, was the number that got the crowd in the Shed not only up on its feet but into the aisles and dancing and cheering, but for my money, the musical highlight of the night was “Bodhisattva,” given a turbocharged rendition by the group’s drummer and featuring powerful, clipped phrasing by Fagen and the Brats.
On paper, Steely Dan has always been the perfect Tanglewood “pop” act. After forty years, they finally got to prove it.
Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning music critic and the author of Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet and The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music.