Steely Dan – Live in California

Music Reviews Steely Dan
Steely Dan – Live in California

It doesn’t take a sociologist to peg the typical Steely Dan fan as being a middle-aged man who grossly overspends on stereo equipment, yet severely under-spends on wardrobe (no, tech boy, Hawaiian shirts and jeans are not the perfect attire for every social occasion). Most likely, many who made the pilgrimage to see Steely Dan tonight still wax nostalgic over “headphone music,” and collect SACD (super audio CDs) by the truckload. Such audio-heads went home pleased as could be with this particularly note-perfect Steely Dan performance. Nevertheless, anyone who paid to see and experience a “show”—you know, the kind that requires ears and eyes—wasn’t nearly as wowed.

Steely Dan’s nucleus is, and always has been, the rotund and now fatherly looking Walter Becker on guitar (and sometimes vocals) and keyboardist Donald Fagen, who everyday looks more and more like Simpsons character Moe The Bartender doing his Ray Charles impression. The duo’s backed by a large group of musicians who, upon first glance, appear to be a collection of high-school band nerds that could pass for Becker and Fagen’s kids. Under closer inspection, however, these players turn out to be veteran jazz cats like Jim Pugh (trombone) and Cornelius Bumpus (tenor sax). Together, this large ensemble created rigorous jazz-rock—emphasis on the jazz side of this hyphenated musical equation.

Steely Dan released an album of new material in 2003, called Everything Must Go but, during this set, you’d never know—with the only exception being the new “Godwhacker,” Fagen repeatedly introduced songs by saying, “This one goes back to the ’70s,” which makes sense, since the decade was also Steely Dan’s artistic heyday and most productive period. While the group played a few dozen songs in total, there were still quite a few glaring omissions. Hits such as “Hey 19” and “Josie” were welcome inclusions, yet equally popular tracks like “Deacon Blues,” “Reelin’ In The Years” and “Do It Again,” didn’t make the cut. Countdown to Ecstasy’s “Bodhisattva,” with its bopping rhythm, would have been a real kick in the hands of this particular lineup.

Fagen sings the majority of Steely Dan songs, though Becker took over vocals on “My Haitian Divorce” and “Daddy Don’t Play In That New York City No More,” while the unit’s three female backup singers harmonized on “Parker’s Band.” The group doesn’t move around or say much onstage (excepting glib Fagen remarks like, “Here’s another song”). So, oddly enough, this concert’s charisma void transformed the sometimes-psychedelic video screen visuals into unexpectedly necessary focal points.

Steely Dan’s body of work—with its detailed musical arrangements and lovably cynical lyrics—is required listening for any and all rock music fans. But seeing these studio-tanned musicians in concert can hardly be considered an essential outing. It amounts to little more than an elective in the grand educational scheme of things.

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