Donnelly: Steely Dan@Starlight Theater, August 25, 2011


When I was young, I hated Steely Dan.  Not that I even knew who they were.

There was a radio show every Sunday night called "Reelin’ in the Years," that played classic rock and other "oldies." Appropriately, the theme song for the show was the Steely Dan song by the same name.

What is this old crap, I thought?

Plus, my parents listened to the Dan on long road trips. Yuck.

Then, in college, I "discovered" Pretzel Logic. THIS is the band that played that theme song?

I got hooked.

Thursday night was my first Dan show, and I must say I was impressed…

From the first note of the night, Steely Dan had the sold out Starlight Theater crowd eating out of the palm of their ridiculously polished hand. 

They came out strong starting with the classics East St. Louis Toodle oo, Your Gold Teeth, Aja, and a super swingin’ Black Friday

The band, all 13 strong, sounded clear and balanced, subtle and smart.  Polished.  Very polished. As expected.

And none more so than guitarist Jon Herington, who went to work early and often, replicating those first famous wah-wah licks from Toodle oo very ably, as well as pretty much all the other lead parts throughout the night.  Walter Becker doesn’t really play the lead anymore, but no worries.  There’s something to be said for recognizing one’s limitations and passing the torch. 

Anyway, Herington is a badass.   

Everything was smooooth.  Drummer Keith Carlock also impressed, holding everything together with his precision fills and in-the-pocket time keeping.  I think he might be a robot – he’s that good.

Donald Fagen was energetic and spot on throughout the night.  At one point he left the stage for a good 10 minutes and came back looking a little wild, flailing his arms around and urging on the crowd.

What happens backstage, stays backstage.  

Though Donald Fagen’s voice could be heard to strain now and again throughout the night, he still hits most of the notes easily.  And when in doubt, the three women backup singers known as the Embassy Brats were right there to fill in the cracks with their creamy harmonies.  The Brats were notable for their subtlety that really came through on the third song of the night, Aja, which the band dedicated to KC mayor Sly James, who was in attendance, and his daughter, Aja.

Rather than blaring through, it was more like a blend – where Fagen’s voice ended, their’s began.     

I don’t know what kind of time a band like this has to spend in the rehearsal studio, but I imagine it’s something like 24/7.  And I also imagine Donald Fagen and Walter Becker ruling as twin dictators, barking orders and rejecting anything short of perfection. 

How else could they get it that tight? 

Midway through the 5th song, Hey Nineteen, guitarist Walter Becker stepped to the mic to tell a little story as the Miles High Big Band vamped behind him. 

"You know, up in New England we have a little saying: When the weather’s hot and sticky it’s not time for dunkin’ dickey," Becker began.  "When the frost is on the pumpkin, it’s time for dickey dunkin’."

Hey, gilfs need lovin’ too, right?

"You know, you’re out here, you’re feeling like you did back in to ’70s, you plunked down your hard earned cash to go see a band," he continued, before pausing purposefully, grinning a prankster’s grin and adding,  "And it’s worth every penny of it!" 

The crowd roared. 

"Then after the show, you take your girl back to your condo – that’s what we call motel rooms now – and maybe you break out a little crumbly, green vegetable matter, and maybe you get a bottle and pour a couple shots.  And she looks at the thinnest joint she’s ever seen, and asks ‘What’s in the bottle?  What’s in that bottle?’"

Oh Walter, you big goofball, we all know what’s in that bottle:

"The Cuervo Gold / The fine Colombian / Let’s make tonight a wonderful thing..." lilted the Embassy Brats. 

A tad of momentum was lost with the next few songs, the less popular Time Out of Mind and new song Lunch With Gina

Time to grab another beer. 

By the time I got back the crowd was getting back into it with a long version of Show Biz Kids that featured a tasteful alto sax solo by Walt Weiskopf.  Then they took it up another notch with a rippin’ version of Bodhisattva that seemed a little more uptempo than usual, and featured (guess who?) Herington and his magic fingers flying up and down the fret board on an extended solo jam. 

The biggest ovation of the night so far affirmed Herington’s work, understated as his stage presence is.

But could I ask just one thing?  Something that I don’t EVER remember asking for?  Could you guys play just a little louder?  I mean, it’s so good, I just want to feel it a little more.  Rattle my eyeballs a little. I like it. 

Next came some nice versions of Pretzel Logic, Dirty Work with all the vocals provided by the Brats, Josie, Peg, My Old School, and what had to be the closer, Reelin’ in the Years.   

The only real "filler" of the night came near the end of the set, when Becker introduced every member of the band and let them do a little lick with the spotlight on them.  Though good in theory, with a big band like theirs, it took almost 15 minutes.  I would have rather heard Bad Sneakers or Deacon Blues.

Then again, I’m a selfish, greedy music junkie, so there’s that.   

Maybe I should just be satisfied with a top notch band that played a ton of hits impeccably for over two hours, came back for an encore version of Kid Charlemagne, and left everyone feeling good. 

Yeah, I should be. 

And I was, I really was.


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16 Responses to Donnelly: Steely Dan@Starlight Theater, August 25, 2011

  1. Gavin says:

    Damn that was a good show
    The band was so damn tight. I agree with you that it would have been better if they’d played “Deacon Blues” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” or “FM” instead of the extended member intros, but I still thought the show was amazing. That was my first time seeing them too, but I’m already looking forward to the next one.

  2. Cliffy says:

    Nice review of the show. One thing. I don’t think Walter could have ever really been considered lead guitarist. There’s always been somebody like Jeff Baxter or Denny Dias to handle that even though Becker does some solos occasionally. And you’re right … Herrington is awesome. Carlock is in a class my himself.

    I’ve seen them 7 times since 1996 and if you asked me which show was the best I don’t think I’d be able to say. They are consistently good. Something I have noticed is that Fagan really seems to be enjoying himself these days … no longer the morose creator. He’s having fun. It’s fun to watch.

  3. Cliffy says:

    Oh … and one other thing.
    Wish I’d known you were going to be there, Gavin. I would have bought you a drink even if you are a jayhawk.

  4. Gavin says:

    I would have accepted
    I can’t believe I’d be the first Jayhawk you’ve drunk with, Cliffy. I would have happily reciprocated.

  5. smartman says:

    No Deacon, Rikki or FM? I woulda been so pissed! Love SD on vinyl! Seen ’em several times. They are incredible live. Just goes to show what you can do when you take your craft seriously and respect both the time and money of your fans.

    Nice to know Mayor Sly was in the crowd building up some more bona fides with the white suburban toker/stoner crowd.

    Wonder if he’ll drop some acid at the Uptown when Australian Pink Floyd takes their turn.

  6. Hearne Christopher says:

    So you kinda liked Matt’s review then? I thought he did an awesome job.

  7. smartman says:

    Matt’s review kicked ass! Much better than Tim Finn’s.

    Matt’s got the tool’s and the “it factor” to be a great writer.

    Once he develops the requisite substance abuse problem there’s no limit to where he can go.

  8. the log says:

    I was pissed smartman
    Great night, great crowd. I was blown away at there craftsmanship. I agree this review is much better than Finns

  9. smartman says:

    Do it Again?
    Talked to a friend of mine who went. He’s FURIOUS they didn’t play Do it Again either. Said he and his pals listened to it like twenty times on the way to Starlight, the one song they HAD to hear, NO SHOW. WTF? BUMMER! That’d be like the Stones not playing Gimme Shelter.

  10. RickM says:

    Screw craftsmanship
    Part of the reason that punk rock took off in the 70s (at least in the UK) was that a buncha kids wanted to take rock’n’roll back from the maestros: the Jimmy Pages, Rick Wakemans and, yeah, Steely Dans, who made such a fetish over craftsmanship, precision and polish. That’s the myth anyway, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to it.
    SD wisely bided their time, took several years off and are now cashing in big on boomer nostalgia. Will they ever make a record with just the right mix of chops and snark as Countdown to Ecstasy again? Probably not. One thing’s clear, though: their fans as well as fans of their contemporaries just want them to stay together and come to their town every few years. Some would call that pretty passive.

  11. Cliffy says:

    Do It Again?
    Sitar solo anybody? No thanks. They probably haven’t done that one since 1975. I saw them do Rikki in 2000 at West Palm Beach. It was a very slow, off key jazzy version that bore little resemblance to the original. For whatever reason, I don’t think Fagan likes doing it.

  12. kcfred says:

    The Dan
    Better show in StL. Deacon Blues fit nicely between Aja and Home at Last there. They haven’t done Do It Again in a long time and the faithfull recreation of “Reelin in The Years” was a nice surprise. They always do the “Becker intermission”, at least there is some music going on. Becker/Fagen find the best people, pay them well and let them play. Yes, Fagen is finally glad to be on stage again. “Time Out of Mind” and “Lunch with Gina” (for true fans) are not bathroom breaks. “Gina” from the Last Mall was first performed on stage anywhere the previous night in StL. The Fox crowd was rockin and had better energy. I think being outside on a beautiful night might have laid us back a bit. Does it look like Becker has just ate something sour? Is he not a convicted pedophile? I seem to remember about 30 years ago, he was busted for doinking an underage gal. Fagen has also said that Rikki was a pos and released just to show how hapless top 40 radio was at the time. This show is how it’s done, kids.

  13. Cliffy says:

    kcfred … believe you meant Everything Must Go rather than Last Mall.

    The Starlight crowd, in large part, was made up of people seeing SD for the first time and were there for nostalgic reasons as much as for the music. Therefore, they were somewhat disappointed not to hear all of their favorites from the 70s. SD is much more than just an old band touring on past reputation. The nostalgic segment of the crowd got to hear the original arrangement of Reelin’ in the Years. I actually prefer the newer, horn-dominated arrangement.

    i’ve heard the same stories about Becker. If it happened, there’s not much information out there about it. It kind of fits his personna, though, I think.

  14. kcfred says:

    thanks cliffy
    mea culpa. And I agree about the crowd. I think the concert goers in StL are much more knowledgable. Maybe it’s the fact that KSHE has been there since 67 or just the vibe in general. it seemed the StL crowd just exploded at the Dan from the first strains of East St. Louis Toodle Doo and didn’t sit down all night long. We’re much more laid back here and maybe that reflects some in the performance. Me just trying to over analyze things I guess. Either way, maybe the show of the year for me (and I’ve seen 134 this year so far)

  15. Cliffy says:

    In respect to Steely Dan the StL fan might be more knowledgable because they know what to expect. SD has played there three times now since 2007 whereas their last visit to KC was 1996. Plus, the Fox is a much more intimate setting for a concert (but Starlight was oustanding nonetheless).

  16. PB says:

    Great Show
    Great night @ Starlight. I agree with most of what’s already been said…very impressive band. Great to hear live all those tunes I’ve loved and grew up with. First album purchased was Can’t Buy A Thrill. Can’t really complain about a setlist from a band with so much to offer (no Black Cow was my only real regret), but I think they’ve done a pretty good job of mixing up their setlists on this tour. Pretty damn inclusive with the only constant so far being nothing from Two Against Nature, ironically their big Grammy winning album. FM, Green Earrings, Monkey In Your Soul and yes kcfred, even Do It Again at their recent Nashville show have been included in sets at some point during this tour. I just hope KC doesn’t have to wait another 15 years for the Dan to come back through.

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