Steely Dan at Wells Fargo Theater in Denver
Wells Fargo Theater
October 29, 2009
Going to a Steely Dan concert is like riding in a luxury car; you know just what you're going to get: a smooth, comfortable ride. There may not be much in the way of surprises, but it sure feels good. That predictability applies even more on the current tour in which the band has been playing some of their classic albums in their entirety. Thursday night in Denver, the band played perhaps their most popular album, Aja. And the ride was smooth and sweet.
Actually the band started with a bit of surprise in the form of an instrumental bebop tune played by the rhythm and horn sections. Each of the four horn players as well as the pianist got a solo, many featuring Monkish dissonance. What? Bumps in the road? Walter Becker and Donald Fagan have always yearned for serious jazz cred to enhance their hipness factor. They've worked with real live jazz guys like Phil Woods, Ray Brown, Plas Johnson and Ernie Watts. They've covered an Ellington tune ("East St. Louis Toodle-oo") and ripped off Horace Silver's "Song for My Father" in "Rikki Don't Loose That Number." On Thursday night, once they'd established they knew authentic jazz, the program could commence. Fagan and Becker and their background singers came on stage and took their places. A spotlight hit the right side of the stage and illuminated a pedestal with a turntable on top. A woman walked up to it and put the needle in the groove to start the Aja portion of the program.
The Dan played the album's songs in order. After "Deacon Blues" concluded, the female disc jockey came back on stage and flipped the record over so "Peg" could commence. The live versions of the familiar songs were about 90% true to the album versions with the main variation being more room for the soloists. A highlight was the simultaneous drum solo and tenor sax solo in the middle of the song "Aja." Other than flipping the record over in the middle, the band played all the tunes with little space in between and no comments from any band members. It was almost like listening to the record at home, only better because it was live.
The band sounded great. The current configuration includes 13 musicians: bass, drums, four horns (baritone sax, tenor sax, trumpet and trombone) three female (mostly background) singers, guitar, keyboards, Becker on additional guitar and occasional vocals and Fagan on Rhodes electric piano, melodica and lead vocals. Many of the band members have their own albums and other bands. Mark Patterson on trombone plays with the Denver based jazz band Convergence. Vocalist Catherine "Cat" Russell has her own blues/jazz albums as does vocalist Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, guitarist Jon Harington and trumpeter Michael Leonhart. The collaborative result was a sound as highly polished as the Aja album itself.
Fagan, as the lead vocalist is, of course, the focal point for much of the show. And that's where Thursday night's show varied from the albums in another way. He's starting to show his age; a little stooped, a touch of grey and a voice that's a bit more constrained than it was 30 years ago. At least he remembered all the words (unlike a prior show in Denver a few years ago). Otherwise he was energized throughout the evening and the harmonies with the backing vocalists were generally right on.
It was fitting that the Post-Aja portion of the program began with "Black Friday" since October 29 was the 80th anniversary of the stock market crash that led to the First Great Depression. ("Catch the grey men as they dive from the 14th floor.") That song was also one of the few that received a different treatment from its original version with a new, driving bass line that gave it more energy. Another one in that category, and about the only song that wasn't identifiable within the first three or four measures was "Show Biz Kids." This one was completely remodeled from its original version on the Dan's second album, Countdown to Ecstasy from 1973. Back in those days the band usually couldn't afford a horn section ("My Old School" being the only exception on that album), but Thursday night's version employed the horns along with the classic laid back funk of late 70s Steely Dan which generally made it sound like it could have been the eighth song on the Aja album.