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Reeling In the Years: Steely Dan at Mud Island, Memphis, Tennessee

C. Michael Bailey By

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Steely Dan
Mud Island
Memphis, Tennessee
August 14, 2009


The only relationship Steely Dan had with the 1970s was the temporal fact of having existed and been popular then. The band's music was always light years ahead of its time. Intelligent, inventive, and way too clever, Steely Dan's music could have just as easily been created now, or for that matter, well in the future.

"Reeling in the Years" from the 1972 recording Can't Buy A Thrill competed with the likes of, on one hand, Don McLean's "American Pie," Derek and the Dominoes "Layla," and Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and, on the other hand, The Looking Glass' "Brandy," America's "Ventura Highway" and The New Seekers' "I'd Like to Teach The World to Sing." Steely Dan has always been the odd band out: too smart for their own good but with music virally popular...what Adult Contemporary Jazz is in Heaven.

As a nostalgia motor, Steely Dan is superior to its peers then and now for having been so musically and lyrically rich that the band's corpus effortlessly became a working part of the late Baby Boomers' collective subconscious. "Peg" and "Hey Nineteen" blissfully infect adult awareness and bounce around the auditory-cortical highway like radioactive neurotransmitters wreaking havoc in the pleasure centers.

So, it was to a crowd of 5,000 such said late Baby Boomers that Steely Dan appeared at Memphis' Mud Island Amphitheater on the Mississippi River, Friday, August 14 on the band's "Rent Party '09" tour. Much of this American tour had been devoted to complete performances of individual albums, which were always events when first released in the '70s. However, Mud Island was a general show with an incomplete smattering from across the band's repertoire.

The working end of Steely Dan, Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, had a reputation in the 1970s of being much better in the studio than on stage. This in part led to the band's late '70s moratorium on live appearances. To be sure, Steely Dan's music was always intricate and multilayered, difficult to reproduce. But with the technological evolution of the last 30 years, the band has put together a splendid show with many surprises and keen artistic touches.

To bring their signature sound to the stage, Fagan and Becker assembled a band of eleven, including a four-piece horn section (baritone and tenor saxophones, trumpet and trombone), a raging lead guitarist in Jon Herington, supplementing Walter Becker's sinewy Fender Stratocaster, and über-drummer and Mississippi native Keith Carlock, whose thundering presence could be felt in the Peabody Hotel Bar.

The show opened with a funky introduction, whose coda included the two principals coming on stage and performing a completely revamped "Reeling in the Years," transposed into the minor and slowed down in the same manner as Bruce Hornsby's recent reworkings of "Mandolin Rain." Compellingly arranged as a slow funk burn, this "Reeling" provided a grand contrast to the searing original version. Wouldn't it be cool for the band to then close the show with the original?
The set list (below) reveals a fairly even distribution across the band's 1970s corpus. There were notable exclusions: "Bodhisattva," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Deacon Blues," "My Old School," and "FM" would have been dandy additions to the concert in place of the single repertoire mistake, Walter Becker's lead vocal on "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More" (great guitarist and MC who needs to keep his day job).
Steely Dan purists would have been offended by the minor re-harmonizations Becker and Fagan effected on their old material. Better these re-imaginings be evidence of professionals at the top of their craft, producing their music on their own terms brilliantly. And yes, the band did close with the original version of "Reeling in the Years" making this a memorable and exciting performance.

Set List: Introduction; Reelin' in the Years (New Version); Time Out of Mind; Green Earrings; Bad Sneakers; Black Friday; Aja; Black Cow; Parker's Band; Babylon Sisters; Daddy Don't Live in that New York City No More; Do It Again; Home at Last; Any Major Dude Will Tell You; Peg; Josie; Hey Nineteen; Kid Charlemagne; Encore—Reelin' in the Years (Original Version).


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