By Vit Wagner
In one of the more peculiar ironies in pop music history, Steely Dan went from being a ’70s studio band that didn’t tour to being a ’90s road act that didn’t have any new material to plug.
But, like a weird, cosmic eclipse that occurs every few decades, the group’s live and studio orbits have aligned themselves for a concert stop tomorrow at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto that will feature substantial chunks from this year’s Two Against Nature CD.
”You feel more alive when you have new, relevant material,” says band co- founder Donald Fagen, on the line from Chicago. ”If we had gone out one more year without some new stuff, we’d start to feel like dinosaurs. I don’t want to be part of a revival band.” Fagen and songwriting cohort Walter Becker, who between them have penned such jazzy pop standards as ”Do It Again,” ”Reeling In The Years” and ”Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” are making their first visit to Toronto since a 1996 set made up mainly of crowd-pleasing hits.
This time out, Fagen and Becker, supported by 11 other musicians, will focus on tunes from Two Against Nature, their first original album in two decades, while filling things out with more obscure older tunes. Some, like ”Night By Night” and ”Monkey In Your Soul” from 1974’s Pretzel Logic, were recorded around the time that Steely Dan swore off gigging and had not been heard live prior to last month’s tour kick-off in Japan.
”Although we mainly play to amuse ourselves, we figure that our core fans are probably sick of hearing our hits by now,” Fagen says.
”When we do ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,’ it’s not like it gets that great a response anyway. It’s more of a record song.”
While the core of Steely Dan’s audience falls in the 40 to 60 demographic, Fagen has noticed younger faces at recent shows. It’s possible that the interest of some neophytes has been piqued by the appearance, on the soundtrack for the Farrelly brothers’ Me, Myself & Irene, of Steely Dan covers by Smash Mouth and others.
Fagen says he hasn’t heard the entire recording, which includes a Wilco take on ”Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” but the interpretation of ”Only A Fool Would Say That” by Ivy struck his fancy.
”They did something a little different, but very much in the spirit of the tune,” he says.
Fagen and Becker, more comfortable on stage today than they were during Steely Dan’s airplay heyday of the mid-’70s, when they were frustrated by an inability to do justice to their music live, retain a low-key approach to performing.
”We come out of jazz,” Fagen says. ”And jazz musicians, historically, have the most clumsy comportment of any musicians. They don’t have stagecraft. We don’t have any smoke bombs or fire or anything. We do make a few comments to the audience, now and then. Walter is actually very good at the extemporaneous thing. He does the band introductions, which usually are pretty funny.
”For me, the most important thing is the quality of the playing. As long as the shows sound good, I’m pretty happy.”