By Joan K. Smith
How far would you travel for a concert? How about across the country? Or across the world? It was still September when a gaggle of particularly obsessive music fans descended on New York City from near and far for a singular purpose: The ten-day run of seven Steely Dan concerts at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, the most hotly-anticipated shows of the 2011 “Shuffle Diplomacy Tour” (subtitled “Jazz-Rock Ambassadors to the Galaxy”), which just wrapped up on November 5 in Napier, New Zealand.
Indeed, Steely Dan, which has morphed from a strictly-studio act into touring road warriors over the past ten years — with a steady group of veteran band members, no less — inspires a Dead-esque fan passion that no distance will deter. The run at the Beacon, which featured a different theme and setlist each night, was considered a pilgrimage-worthy occasion, attracting hardcore fans from (by my own informal poll) Australia, Scotland, Sweden, Spain, Norway, nearly every province of Canada, and every corner of the U.S.
Most of these visitors came for multiple shows; some, like grad student T. Smith from Chicago (who has been a fan since age 11), attended the full seven show run, not a cheap proposition considering the high price of the tickets and the cost of a ten-day stay in New York City. Reidar Solli of Norway came armed with specially printed “Norwegian Shuffle Diplomacy Tour” shirts to share with other fans.
What inspires this passion? Obviously, there’s the music, characterized by complex writing, acerbic humor, and pristine execution; impossible to pin, genre-wise, Steely Dan’s music manages to instill either intense love or an “I just don’t get it” hate (full disclosure: this article is unabashedly slanted toward the “love” side, in case that wasn’t already clear).
Beyond the music itself, there is the fact that, originally, Steely Dan principals Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were perhaps the most reluctant rock stars in history, with an aversion to touring that led them, in 1974, to cease live performances for two decades, focusing instead on meticulous studio craftsmanship. This alone has created a mystique that no amount of steady 21st century touring can vanquish.
But the most intriguing part of the equation, and one that keeps fans coming back again and again, is that Becker and Fagen, unless they have the acting skills of Olivier, actually like to perform — like really. Especially Fagen, who was performance-shy back in the 70s but now sets the tone with an ebullient enthusiasm and drive. He clearly enjoys himself up on stage (his towel-whacking-for-emphasis during between-song banter has become a trademark). This spirit reflects amply in the attitude of the band, who not only play and/or sing their hearts out, but look like they are actually having fun doing it. Add this up, and you have one of the most entertaining live acts around.
Back to those fans. Most of the dedicated types are people with personal laundry lists of lesser-performed or even unreleased songs that they lust to hear live; they have been to more than a handful of Steely Dan concerts, know the usual setlist suspects, and will recognize minute arrangement changes from one tour to another. Among these, there even is a small, but vocal, subset who will complain bitterly when concerts lean toward songs tainted by too much exposure to the airwaves, as opposed to “deep cuts.”
Of course, many of Steely Dan’s biggest hits — e.g. “Peg,” “Hey Nineteen,” or “Reelin’ in the Years” — have become ubiquitous in the collective aural landscape, so there is a another, huge fan base who are ardently attached to Steely Dan exactly because of those greatest radio hits, and who expect to hear each and every one of those hits, and only the hits, in concert; many of these “casuals” will even make a beeline for the bathroom or bar at the first chord of an unfamiliar number.
Thus Steely Dan is faced with an especially tricky balancing act if they want to make every fan happy at every show. (Lest you think they aren’t fully cognizant of this issue, check out the priceless review parody on Donald Fagen’s website, which skewers not only inept critics but impossible audience expectations.) (Note: This parody is apparently no longer available. If you see it on the web, please send link to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The lineup of Beacon shows, each with a different theme, appear to have been Becker and Fagen’s tailor-made answer to this dilemma, offering some tantalizing bait to “hardcore” and “casual” fan alike. There were the Aja, Gaucho, and Royal Scam nights, when each of those albums were performed in full, beginning to end, along with what were termed “selected hits;” and an internet request night, loosely guided by popular online vote and which yielded a higher percentage of the “greatest hits.” Then there were the shows that had those far-travelling fans weak in the knees with anticipation: “Dawn of the Dan,” “Rarities,” and the final show, “21st Century Dan” (the latter also included a full performance of The Royal Scam, along with a special guest, guitar legend Larry Carlton, whose signature solos figured so prominently in that album.)
So did they deliver? Did fans consider all that travelling worth it? Yes on both counts.
The “Rarities” show, in particular, pulled out the stops, astonishing even the most cynical “hardcore” fan. It delivered not only “The Bear” (an outtake from Aja that had already appeared a few times early in the tour), and “This All Too Mobile Home” (the number that closed out the shows on their ’74 Pretzel Logic tours, but never appeared on an album) but the first performance ever of “The Second Arrangement.” This particular song is something of a Holy Grail for Dan fans, the one that would have appeared on the Gaucho album had it not been accidentally erased by a hapless assistant engineer; performed live for “the first and maybe the only time” in Fagen’s words, it had more than a few in tears .
Of course, even the special shows like “Rarities” included some of the big hits, like the obligatory “Hey Nineteen,” a nod to that casual fan/hardcore fan balancing act (although at one point during “Rarities” Fagen made the towel-whacking exclamation, “We’re gonna play what we want to play!”
Whatever the motivation, the special Beacon shows left those most loyal of long-travelling fans sublimely happy and even a little dumbfounded. Like it or not, Steely Dan succeeded in delivering something like a love letter* to their fans.
* That, ladies and gentleman, may be the only time you’ll see “Steely Dan” and “love letter” in the same sentence. But as Becker and Fagen proved at the Beacon, there’s a first time for everything.