The first drum solo comes so soon, the entire band isn’t even onstage. For their opening numbers last week, at three “special set list shows” that kicked off an August tenancy at the Beacon Theatre, Steely Dan limbered up with “Teenie’s Blues” by Oliver Nelson, an esteemed jazz composition that called on multi-handed drummer Keith Carlock to punctuate the jaunty, walking pace with unaccompanied rolls and crashes. Not even Rush, we don’t think, inserts a drum solo in the first five minutes of a show. But only then did Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who created the best American rock band of the seventies, saunter out to join their high-aptitude helpmates.
“Teenie’s Blues” isn’t even the best-known track on its own album, which makes it a peculiar way to say hello to a crowd of 3,000. But Steely Dan built their renown by being cognoscenti who know about Oliver Nelson, as well as Owsley Stanley, prewar argot, Horace Silver, Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and where to find the best session drummers in L.A. (Fagen was celebrating the thin-tie sixties way before Mad Men inspired fashion spreads.) It’s an unchallenged truism that Steely Dan is a “jazz-rock group,” partly because they employ jazz-ish players like guitarist Larry Carlton, partly because their songs use chromatic chords and ritornellos and other fancy elements we wouldn’t be able to name if we hadn’t read them on a Steely Dan message board. This is a band nearly synonymous with the archaic accolade “tasty,” a band whose guitar solos are studied and interpreted like the Talmud.
In the seventies, before they went overboard with the chromatic chords and retired, Steely Dan had eight Top 40 hits and thirteen charting singles. Unless you’re prepared to argue that the decade of Deep Purple and America valued ritornellos, this success proves that Steely Dan wasn’t a jazz-rock group, but a pop band who tricked jazz players into playing rock riffs and hooks, mastering the contradiction of bringing connoisseurship to the mainstream.
Fagen and Becker unretired in 2000, issuing two slightly anticlimactic Steely Dan albums this decade, and their summer tour relies heavily on the familiar: they rotate four setlists, three of which feature Gaucho, Aja, and The Royal Scam, their final albums before the sabbatical, and the most harmonically advanced of their first phase. (The fourth set list, dubbed “Internet Request” on their homepage, is based on fans’ votes — which so closely correlate to the band’s existing set lists that suspicion is warranted and an audit of the voting methodology may be in order.)
On his best nights, Donald Fagen looks like a guy who got lost on his way to the OTB parlor. No matter how long Steely Dan recorded in L.A., Fagen remained a New Yorker, gruff and pale, and last week he was even less hale than usual. On Tuesday night, they recreated Aja, their 1979 best-seller, an LP about idealism and transcendence, then followed with more than an hour of hits and complex drum fills; we’d never seen so much man-dating at a concert, not even at the Pet Shop Boys. There were more ponytails than a Hannah Montana concert. (“Look at all these stereo salesmen,” my own man-date chuckled.) In a voice as dry as the Santa Ana winds, Fagen coughed up some high notes, shorting out altogether on “Home at Last,” and announced he had a cold. The next night, a performance of Gaucho was canceled owing to his illness. On Friday, with Larry Carlton joining as a special guest — you should have heard the held tones he injected at the end of his “Reelin’ In the Years” solo! Seriously tasty! — they did The Royal Scam, a mean-spirited record that begins with a story of how the late sixties counterculture died, and Fagen muddled the first verse to “The Caves of Altamira.” The next night he was more voluble, adding new inflections and syncopations to songs, but on “Peg” it seemed he might lose his voice entirely, and a well-heeled couple next to me, in prime seats by the soundboard, declared the show “flat” and walked out halfway through. Elitists are difficult to keep happy.
Three nights of Steely Dan meant not only lots of loudly cheered drum fills but also lots of songs about drinking, from grapefruit wine in “FM” and cherry wine in “Time Out of Mind” to the reeling rejects of “Haitian Divorce” and “Babylon Sisters,” who drink a “zombie from the coco shell” and “kirschwasser from a shell,” respectively. Fagen and Becker’s songs are populated by putzes and shlubs, unreliable narrators who only think they’re having the times of their lives; these are filthy stories, lushly told. In a Jimmy Buffet or Kenny Chesney song, alcohol consumption symbolizes fun and community. For Steely Dan, it’s an augury of disaster, coming shortly after the last guitar solo has faded out.
Steely Dan plays the Beacon Theatre tonight (Internet Request night), as well as August 10 (The Royal Scam), August 11 (also Internet Request night) and August 12 (Gaucho).