Steely Dan is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are a bit odd and people either love ‘em or hate ‘em.
Their body of work combines the most harmonically complex “pop” music in rock and roll with the most subversive (and often hilarious) lyrics ever. They have also benefited from some truly remarkable studio performances over the course of their nine studio-album careers.
As part of the Rent Party Tour 09, in addition to playing albums in their entirety, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have brought on legendary session guitarist Larry Carlton in select cities. This combination has proved irresistible to fans that find Carlton’s solos on Kid Charlemagne, Don’t Take Me Alive, and Third World Man to be some of the finest session guitar soloing ever recorded.
The crack band grounded by drummer Keith Carlock did not disappoint any fans at the show I attended Monday night in Los Angeles as they wound through the Dan’s third-best album The Royal Scam. The evening also included choice nuggets from their broader oeuvre and one cover tune. The playing predictably was astonishingly tight, providing ample soloing opportunities for Carlton and the equally-tasty-yet-not-as-widely-known guitarist Jon Herrington. Trombonist Jim Pugh and the “I’ve stopped doing cardio” co-leader Walter Becker also provided pleasing solo flourishes.
Becker also provided some entertaining between-song banter. I would suggest more of this in the future. His dry delivery is smart and hilarious.
Fagen may have lost some range through the years, but his use of a superb trio of background singers made this a minor distraction. The song selection (besides the predetermined album of the night, The Royal Scam) was a great combination of the familiar (Reelin’ in the Years, Hey Nineteen) and the obscure (Parker’s Band, Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City). My only regret was no songs from Steely Dan’s last two studio albums, or from Becker or Fagen’s solo CD’s. Some of Carlton’s finest studio work is found on Fagen’s Nightfly. Becker’s 11 Tracks of Whack is an overlooked CD of considerable charm featuring predictably fine guitar and surprisingly effective vocals from the mostly silent partner of rocks most acerbic duo.
Gaucho’s album closer, “Third World Man” has long been regarded by die-hard fans as one of the best Dan songs that really brings it all together in terms of what they can accomplish in the studio. A harmonically rich song full of dynamics, understated virtuoso performances (Carlton’s guitar playing spectacular!), great production (Check out the 50 Donald Fagen’s singing backup), ambitious and obtuse lyrics (what are they singing about anyway?), all combining to create a satisfying musical and emotional experience. No one else in rock and roll (or jazz for that matter) can do this quite the way they do.
Hearing this song live with Carlton, who by that time in the show had found his tone, was a sublime concert moment. His remarkable command of the guitar was on full display on every solo phrase, every bend, and vibrato. The combination of Carlton’s guitar mastery and The Dan’s rich and unique material demonstrated for all who attended (even to the most cynical) why the Dan not only deserve their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but also won’t be showing up for a PBS pledge special any time soon.