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Live review: Steely Dan at the Gibson Amphitheatre

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A few minutes before Steely Dan took the stage to play the entirety of its 1977 album “Aja,” a man wandered the Gibson Amphitheatre dressed as Jesus – wavy, honey-colored hair, a shapeless sackcloth and a benevolent gaze for every sinner who cheered him on.

It was a fitting image for a band that has been both worshiped as melody masters and reviled as purveyors of buttery jazz-rock. The split reputation still dogs the band to this day, among the revivalist hipsters who bitterly argue Steely Dan’s iconoclast status. In the prime time of Kiss and Black Sabbath, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen eschewed the iron fist of rock for their own fleet-fingered vision.

Everyone gathered Friday evening was a believer – and they were treated to something close to rapture at the opening night of Steely Dan’s four-night run in L.A. as part of the group's “Rent Party Tour,” which boasts a special gimmick for the big-city stops: Each show, the band will play a classic album (Saturday was “Gaucho”; Monday is “The Royal Scam”), except for the fourth night, when the group performs requests compiled via Internet ballot from ticket holders. 

With an 11-piece band onstage, Steely Dan had no shortage of help in re-creating the burnished peaks and sauntering jazz of “Aja.” The seven-song suite was conceived, like all of the band's late '70s studio efforts, not to be played live, but they’ve taken on the challenge, a wise choice in this pro-touring chapter of the music business.

In many ways, these stunt shows are a celebration of the session musician. The focus is not so much on the swagger that a lesser player might compensate with, as it is on the precision of a seasoned hand. From the liquid gold tones of backing vocalists Carolyn Leonhart, Catherine Russell and Tawatha Agee to the dicing, splicing drumming of Keith Carlock, each member onstage commanded his or her spotlight,  though more moments of general spontaneity wouldn't have hurt.

At the helm of it all was Fagen, who looked like a member of the Muppets’ Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem with his dark glasses and puppet-like head jerks behind the keyboard or on the prowl with his melodica. Becker was always nearby, trading flashy guitar work with Jon Herington on “Aja” tunes as well as a second set that combed through their '70s catalog, including a deliciously prickly rendering of “Hey Nineteen” and a spring-tight “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City Anymore.”

Neither member of the duo engaged in much talk with the audience, but when the lyrics are as pungent as Steely Dan’s, they shouldn’t be cluttered with needless chatter. “Show Biz Kids” carved a deep, clean hole of funk with caustic lines that might have once been directed at Steely Dan’s sparring partner of 2006, Owen Wilson.

Transplants to L.A. from New York in the early '70s, Becker and Fagen loved to comment on the fame game with Vonnegut-inspired black humor. “Peg” is no different with its "blue" phrase that hints at an actress in the porn industry, but the triumphant horns and Fagen’s clipped and then languid vocals elevated it to the most exuberant decadence.

For the encore, the act sunk its full mettle into “Reelin’ in the Years,” its rhythms and dynamics worked up for drama’s sake. Though Steely Dan has been lambasted for producing music for sipping white-wine spritzers, everyone knows they really like the harder stuff: a smooth, yet spikey, shot of Cuervo Gold or scotch whiskey all night long.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo of Steely Dan performing last month in Switzerland: Jean Christophe-Bott / EPA

 
Comments () | Archives (6)

My nephew bought tickets for this wonderful event at the Gibson (a family traditon to hear Steely Dan together)and the only thing I can say is that it left me speechless.
The music was unbeleavably tight, the entertainment was enthralling and the the back up singers were beautiful, heavenly angels that smelled really good (oh and tall).
Walter Becker and Donald Fagan hit high notes of joy and nostalgia. All this coming from a finely tuned, reliable rythum machine, powered by some of the best musicians anywhere in the world.

I'm buggin'

Saturday's THIRD WORLD MAN alone was worth the $147 admission.

Plus DIRTY WORK, and DON'T TAKE ME ALIVE were included as a deviation from the (unfortunately) predictable setlist.

LA takes a lot of heat for being a laid back town.

These 2 concerts had audiences that were on fire and I am pretty sure that it surprised the band. I know it surprised me. They rose to the occasion though and put on 2 fabulous shows. I was totally amazed at how good the night was and I have seen them in places like the Roseland Ballroom in NYC.

Royal Scam tonight and Internet Request tomorrow. I truly can't wait.

The Royal Scam concert left me almost numb. I hardly had the energy to raise my iphone for a few quick pics. On top of it all, seeing Larry Carlton performing "Kid Charlemagne" ( voted by Rolling Stone as the 3rd greatest rock guitar solo of all time ), what more could you ask for. The drum solo on "Aja" blew my lights out. Purchased a $147 ticket but at the last minute, sold it at a loss and upgraded to Row 5 for $275. I would pay $500 to see that show again. If you missed it, shame on you !

It was a great show. Too bad the Gibson has poor security and the lodo in front of me chased away everyone blowing pot from his pipe in all directions. When I went to the usher to complain (and I had a right to, I paid 200.00 each for two seats, he merely shrugged and told me he'd tell his supervisor. I will never see a show at the Gibson again. They ruined an awesome show.

thanks for the begrudging negativity.

why don't you review some infallible "artiste" like david byrne or tommy lee? open your ears. steely dan is the best sonically and intellectually (lyrics, etc.) of any popular music. you need to stick with some whining junkie like alice in chains or real quality like 50 cent.


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