Fourteen years is a pretty long sabbatical in anybody’s language, yet that’s the elapsed time between Donald Fagen and Walter Becker winding up Steely Dan after 1980’s Gaucho and reforming the band to tour in 1994.
A recording of that tour duly appeared as Alive in America which all self-respecting Dan Fans rushed out and bought. We were happy – it was a new Steely Dan release even if it wasn’t new material – but the critics were generally unimpressed, labelling it little more than a well executed exercise in nostalgia.
In hindsight, this seems harsh as there was no official live Steely Dan album during the band’s first incarnation. Also, there was a new piece (though it did not make it onto the CD), an instrumental ‘Overture’ that cleverly compressed the essential Dan catalogue into 8 minutes and which snuck into the public domain as a bonus track on the Cousin Dupree CD single in early 2000.
As it happens, your correspondent had arrived in Germany just in time to catch one of my favourite bands in concert.
The place: Frankfurt, Germany
The date: 3rd September 1996
The review that follows was first published in Rhythms magazine in October 1996.
After eschewing the road in the mid-seventies in favour of extended periods of studio reclusiveness, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker got together for a series of live gigs in 1993 and 1994, shows which resulted in the Alive in America CD last year. That disc was eagerly sought out by fans whose only previous access to live Steely Dan had been one bootleg from the aborted seventies tour and a single track on the Citizen Steely Dan boxed set. Embarking upon a second tour so soon indicates either a great burst of youthful energy at odds with their middle aged appearances, or perhaps a great desire for money. After all, it worked for The Eagles.
Nevertheless, for those of us who love those obsessively crafted albums, the promise of live Dan is most exciting. Exciting enough, in fact, to overshadow the pain of the ticket prices: some fifty percent more in Germany than in London.
By the time we arrive at Frankfurt’s Festhalle, the body blow to the credit card is forgotten and we (almost) cheerfully shell out fifty bucks for a t-shirt and a program. Well, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, isn’t it? The program tells us that this is the Art Crimes ’96 tour, although it does not explain why or what the crimes are supposed to have been. Perhaps the t-shirt prices.
And so the lights go down and the band sneak on to lay down the funky groove which accompanies the arrival of Messers Fagen and Becker. First up is ‘Do it Again’, and as I sing along with the chorus I wonder whether this is going to be a chronological journey through the Steely Dan songbook. Not so, as ‘Bad Sneakers’ and ‘Josie’ follow, the latter including a drum solo which feels somewhat out of place so early in the show and before anyone has even said ‘Hello’.
One thing is obvious already. The sound in the auditorium is very disappointing, especially for a band renowned for its production. My companion, who has local knowledge, tells me this is always the case in this venue: the acoustics suck. Later, when I chat to the sound engineer, he confirms that it was ‘impossible’ to get a decent sound. And he’s no slouch either, having also done live sound for Paul Simon and the recent Australian concert revival of Superstar. But we do not let this dampen our enthusiasm, even though Walter Becker’s noodling solo in ‘Josie’ does not quite compare with some of those fantastic guitar parts on the records.
After the third song, Donald Fagen says, ‘Good Evening’. He tells us that this is the first concert of Steely Dan’s first ever European trip. We cheer in a slightly desultory ‘Is that something to be proud of?’ manner. In the intro to a new song (‘Jack of Speed’) we also learn that they are planning to record this (northern) winter, and this produces a much more heartfelt cheer. The new song is OK, but Walter singing a Steely Dan song will take a little getting used to.
Most of the Dan songs we know and love duly appear, yet there are enough departures from the track listing of the recent CD to keep things interesting. The playing throughout is highly competent and surprisingly energetic. At one point during ‘Green Earrings’ Donald Fagen almost dances! Second lead guitarist Wayne Krantz is in fine form, playing intelligent angular breaks which work well in the live setting. The rhythm section of Tom Barney (bass) and Ricky Lawson (drums) is as tight as the legendary gnat’s arse and the brass kicks when it should, with the solos from young saxophonist Ari Ambrose being outstanding.
From the principal’s solo repertoires we get Becker’s pedestrian ‘Waterloo’ from the recent 11 Tracks of Whack while Donald contributes a delightful ‘Green Flower Street’ from The Nightfly, rocking at his Fender Rhodes like nothing so much as an anaemic Stevie Wonder. Of course they never lose their cool. Donald may take off his jacket but never his sunglasses. And Walter’s tie is still neatly aligned during the encores.
Opening the second half of the concert with ‘East St Louis Toodle-oo’ was inspired and – if one can associate the word with SD – fun. Other highlights were a fabulous ‘Home At Last’ whose dreamy cadences well suit the Garcia-like guitar style of Walter Becker, and ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ which helped bring the evening to a lively conclusion.
Some reviews were less than complimentary, grizzling about soullessness and lack of rock ‘n’ roll sweat, but these criticisms totally miss the point. Steely Dan have always represented the intellectual and perfectionistic side of rock. In concert they play instrumental breaks like jazz musicians and invite the audience to revisit the songs: this is not slavish repetition. After a generous two hours plus, I left feeling quite satisfied with the concert and carrying a seed of excitement at the prospect of a new studio album (although I’m not holding my breath: studio speed has never been a priority for these guys).
I do not know whether the music of Steely Dan is ‘Art’ or ‘Rock and Roll’ and I still don’t know what an ‘Art Crime’ is. But for highly skilled musicians to play intelligent music is certainly not a capital offense. Even in the rock world, surely intelligence is only a misdemeanour.
Since then there have been two further studio albums, another concert attended and another really expensive t-shirt. Perhaps another time.
Steely Dan ‘Alive in America’ [Giant, 1995]
Steely Dan ‘Cousin Dupree’ [Single, Giant, 2000]