By Bruce Ward
If Steely Dan were just starting out in the music biz, could they make it big in the post-album era?
Or would today’s music fans tell Rikki to lose their number?
It’s something for the Dans — hardcore Steely Dan fans — to think about with the band’s “Jamalot Ever After” tour coming to the National Arts Centre on Tuesday (8/26/14).
In the 1970s, Steely Dan became the favourite jazz-influenced rock outfit for college students in liberal-arts programs. As songwriters, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker wrapped their wry, sardonic lyrics in layers of studio precision provided by the cream of L.A. session musicians and obsessive producer Gary Katz.
But kids these days have got too much going on (texting, Instagram trolling, tweeting) to wade through 40 minutes of Aja, Steely Dan’s sixth and most sophisticated album.
Aja sold more than five million copies in 1977 and stands as their most ambitious work. The title track, a suite with a dandy sax solo and Steve Gadd’s marvelous drumming, is a monument to the Steely’s perfectionism.
How much all those difficult chords and mordant lyrics — red-hot licks and black humour – would interest the new generation of “screenagers” is an open question.
Yet there was a time when fans immersed themselves in each new Steely Dan album, in the same spirit that young people now binge watch multi-part TV series like “Breaking Bad.”
Really, it’s funny how things worked out for Fagen and Becker over the course of Steely Dan’s lifespan.
In the beginning, the band spurned singles and hated touring. They quit the road after a show in Santa Monica in the summer of 1974, and never went back out until 1993 — a gap of nearly 20 years. Now they make most of their money by touring, like every other warhorse band from the 1970s.
And singles have become the best way for new artists to get noticed, just like the early days of rock and roll. The album — Steely Dan’s core strength — has been declared dead by industry insiders and no less an authority than the BBC.
For Jamalot Ever After, Steely Dan has put together another crack band, featuring several tour veterans including guitarist Jon Herington, drummer Keith Carlock and Jim Beard, keyboards. Backup singers the Danettes are led by Carolyn Leonhart, a highlight of every Steely Dan tour since 2000.
Jamalot is also the least cryptic of the band’s recent tour titles, compared with last year’s outing Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day, or the oddly named Shuffle Diplomacy in 2011.
So far, the setlist on the Jamalot tour has been fairly constant, featuring plenty of crowd-pleasers, from “Black Cow” to “Bodhisattva,” but few rarities or unearthed gems from the depths of the band’s catalogue. It’s as if Steely Dan stopped with Gaucho, the meandering fusion album released in 1980.
At the time, rock critic Dave Marsh dismissed Gaucho as “arty background noise,” then gave the band the back of his hand. “Steely Dan songs … (are) often puzzles, filled with elliptical jokes, musical and verbal puns,” he wrote. “After a while, those lacking a taste for working sonic acrostics … (lose) interest.”
Marsh and other critics much preferred Steely Dan’s rockier numbers — particularly “Reelin’ In The Years” for the nasty revenge motif and the sheets of jazzy cascading guitar. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” — their biggest hit, reaching number four on Billboard’s singles chart in 1974 — is a great rock song because it sticks to the basics: the beat, hot guitar licks, amusing wordplay.
But Steely Dan was always a polarizing band. You either loved Fagen’s distinctive nasal sneering and their clever arrangements, such as the slinky samba beat and electric sitar solo of “Do It Again,” or it left you cold.
As for their lyrics, who knows what “Deacon Blues” is about? “The Fez,” to take another example, is all ambiguity but the keyboard and guitar work are superb.
Chances are you won’t hear either of these lesser known songs at the NAC. Also conspicuously absent from Jamalot shows are songs from Everything Must Go, their sterling 2003 comeback album.
For their own reasons, it seems Fagen and Becker are now content to be road warriors with superior chops, playing their best-loved songs from the Jimmy Carter era.
Steely Dan has been opening Jamalot concerts with “Cubano Chant,” an uptempo jazz tune by the late pianist Ray Bryant.
What fun it would be if instead they’d picked Bryant’s pop hit from 1960 — “The Madison Time, Part 1.” It’s a novelty number with dance calls: “When I say hit it, I want you to go two up and two back with a big strong turn and back to the Madison …”
Can you picture hipster prophets Fagen and Becker doing a little self-mocking dance routine at centre stage?
But then that probably wouldn’t be cool.