Steely Dan’s Sedate Style Still Slick

By Jason Anderson
Toronto Globe and Mail

Longtime Steely Dan partners Donald Fagen and Walter Becker seemed middle-aged even when they were still in their 20s. So it’s somehow appropriate that they’re having a career renaissance now, a few decades after the American group’s heyday in the 1970s.

Last night’s (6/27/2000) show to 8,000 fans in the Molson Amphitheatre was only their second concert in Toronto. Steely Dan stopped touring in 1974, preferring to hermetically seal themselves in the recording studio with hired jazz musicians. They originally disbanded after 1980’s Gaucho album, then reformed for some very belated tours in the mid-1990s.

Like their 1996 concert in the same venue, last night was a sedate, genial affair, and as much a jazz show as a rock one. On their current North American tour, the group consists of Fagen, singing and playing his Fender Rhodes electric piano, guitarist and occasional singer Becker, plus an eight-piece band and three female backup singers who, as Becker joked, “comprise the vast amount of the visual appeal of this organization onstage.”

There were ample opportunities for solos by the musicians, who enlivened a set list dominated by hits and album tracks from mid-70s Steely Dan albums such as Katy Lied and Pretzel Logic. Though far from effusive performers, Fagen and Becker have become personable onstage. True, they look a bit like Wall Street executives dressing down for a casual Friday, but they’re still classic hipsters, so much so that Fagen seemed a little thrown to be playing while it was still light outside. “It’s day here for a long time, huh?” he asked the crowd. “Hope it gets dark soon.”

Though never less than slick, their style should not be mistaken for jazzy, mushy soft-rock, which is certainly the impression left by No Static At All, a recent Steely Dan tribute album rendered in a smooth jazz style.

The original songs’ sophisticated sounds are undercut by caustic, cryptic humour in hits such as “Black Friday,” one of the greatest rock songs ever about a stock market crash, and “Deacon Blues,” which featured an excellent contribution by tenor sax player Cornelius Bumpus, who, like many Steely Dan musicians, has also spent time in the Doobie Brothers. Many of these songs may actually be found — in cover versions of mostly dubious quality — on the soundtrack of the new Jim Carrey movie Me, Myself & Irene, including the winsome “Monkey in Your Soul,” sung last night by Becker.

Though Becker had joked that they made a new album — the very fine Two Against Nature, released last February — because they were getting tired of playing the oldies, only a handful of those songs were played last night. Still, the songs from Two Against Nature were indistinguishable from the oldies, which is meant to be a compliment. While some critics found the new album — their first studio disc in 20 years — too chilly in mood and too pristine in execution, here they sounded as lively as the hits. Unfortunately, they didn’t play the album’s two most distinctive numbers — “What A Shame About Me” and the title track, which is strangely reminiscent of the percussive, repetitive style of contemporary British cult band Stereolab — but the other new songs were well-received.

With Becker trading great solos with second guitarist Jon Herington, “Jack of Speed” and “Janie Runaway” were mild-mannered but nimble, and even better was “West of Hollywood,” introduced by Fagen as a “very sad song” about a toxic time with a girl by the unlikely name of Anne de Siecle. Fagen’s lyrics have always been inscrutable and literary — novelist and unabashed Steely Dan fan William Gibson recently called their music “probably the most subversive material pop has ever thrown up” — and “West of Hollywood” sees him singing such odd lines as “We burned right through the summer, Till the arc of pain/pleasure sheared the axis of desire.” The song swings.

Another new track, “Cousin Dupree,” is a little less perplexing in its story line. Its scenario has a lecherous relative coming on to his cousin. “What’s so strange about a down-home family romance?” Fagen sang with palpable bemusement. It took a while, but Fagen and Becker may have finally become the dirty old men they always longed to be.


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