Steely Dan Plays Aja in Akron, OH
E.J. Thomas Hall
November 16, 2009
Since coming back on the scene in 2000, hit makers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have made it a habit to regularly hit the road each summer tour season, a practice that in their earlier years was looked upon with trepidation. In fact, after some live gigs to support their first album, they stopped touring altogether and weren't to be seen in person for some 25 years. Now with a typical sense of irony, they've extended a summer set of concerts billed Rent Party '09 with an extended leg this fall taking in seventeen cities. And in a sagacious move to add some extra panache to their clever marketing ploy, they've decided to host several two-night stands in order to feature the albums Aja and The Royal Scam in their entireties.
The opening evening of a two-night stand in Akron was a well-attended affair that got underway by featuring Chicago's Deep Blue Organ Trio as an aperitif. Being the jazz heads that Fagen and Becker are, this move was no surprise. Organist Chris Foreman, guitarist Bobby Broom, and drummer Chris Rockingham wasted no time getting to the point with tasty solos and blues-inflected grooves. A shuffle beat affixed to the Earth, Wind & Fire classic "Can't Hide Love" would be the highlight of their three-tune set.
Carrying the subliminal jazz message even further, set changes would reveal a fine piece of artwork attached to the front of Fagen's Fender Rhodes, which depicted a youthful Duke Ellington leading the band from his piano. For the coup de grace, as The Dan would put it, a run through of Oliver Nelson's "Teenie's Blues" featuring only the horns and rhythm section would serve as the group's opening gambit. Once Fagen and Becker took the stage, vocalist Catherine Russell stepped up to a turntable on the side of the stage and placed the needle in the groove, complete with sound effects. From there, the opening strains of "Black Cow" ushered in an authentic, but equally fresh run through the Aja album.
Of course, the highlight of that first side has to be the title track. This was no less true last night. Tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf stepped into the solo shoes originally filled by Wayne Shorter and did more than his share to put his own stamp on the number. The same could be said for Keith Carlock, who upped the ante in the drum department, taking over a part that is considered one of studio legend Steve Gadd's finest recorded moments. As "Deacon Blues" wrapped up, Russell would step up to the turntable once again to the flip the record over for the other half of the program. Both "Home at Last" and "Josie" would sport fine guitar solos from Walter Becker, who seemed particularly more animated and outgoing musically than has been the case before.
Rounding out the evening would be a choice offering that provided an entertaining cross section of the rest of the band's history. Again, Becker would take on a more active role in the proceedings, actually delivering a few lines during "Hey Nineteen" and doing the lead vocals on "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More." A welcomed number of more recent vintage, "Godwhacker" mixed in nicely with such iconic trinkets as "Babylon Sisters," "Don't Take Me Alive," and "My Old School." There was also plenty of room for solos from guitarist Jon Herington, saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, and trumpeter Michael Leonhart. At just a wee bit past the two-hour mark, a rousing chorus of applause brought the band back for an encore. With the choice of "Reelin' in the Years," the band would play their irony card once again. Even Becker marveled at the fact that he and Fagen had been at it together for some 40 years and yet the music is as vital and important now as a it ever was; some reelin' indeed.
C. Andrew Hovan