August 12, 2011
Gexa Energy Pavilion
Dallas, TX USA
Review by Alan Muller
Photos by Elise Del Vecchio
There's an inherent irony in attending a Steely Dan concert staged in Middle America, which is worlds removed from the Paraguays and Bogotas of 1980's Gaucho. The post-bop era's preeminent purveyors of licentious lyrical landscapes could be forgiven for seeming out of sorts, in a port-of-call as anti-exotic as Kansas City, Missouri.
But no, the ageless jazz-rock duet of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker settled right into the grand extravaganza that is their traveling minstrel show, on a virtually perfect night for music under the stars at the Starlight Amphitheater. After all, when you're sharing your spotlight with a cadre of eleven ridiculously talented backing musicians, it's hard not to hit a home run - no matter what outpost on the planet you happen to be entertaining.
Dubbed "The Miles High Big Band" for the group's 2011 Shuffle Diplomacy world tour, the backing musicians filed onstage at about 8:20, warming up on the familiar strains of the only instrumental in the band's back-catalog, Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo". As the maudlin ditty wound down, the Dan's troupe of backing-singers (the "Embassy Brats") trotted out, before Becker and Fagen themselves finally emerged to the roar of the Starlight's capacity-crowd of 8000.
With the line-up now complete, the band methodically dug into Countdown To Ecstasy's "Your Gold Teeth", stretching the mid-tempo number out a bit, with both baritone sax player Roger Rosenberg and lead guitarist Jon Herington taking yeoman-like extended solos.
It's not common for the highlight of a rock and roll show to surface fifteen minutes in, but that's exactly what happened during "Aja", which received its formidable airing before the audience had even completely settled into their seats. Herington's solo (on a Larry Carlton-esque tobacco-burst ES-335) was a rather unassuming and minimalist effort, and Walt Weiskopf's interpretation of Wayne Shorter's timeless tenor sax solo was similarly spare, yet tasty. But it was drummer Keith Carlock that delivered the prized performance of the entire night: a gripping statement - in his own voice - of Steve Gadd's majestic percussion appointments and finale. As he flourished his effort, the KC crowd rose in thunderous approval for what was truly an outstanding statement from the drum stool.
After following up that epic performance with an appropriately brisk and laid-back "Black Friday", Becker charged the rest of the band into the jukebox for "Hey Nineteen". Thankfully, the brothers Dan were plainly aware that this song had been somewhat flogged to death over the years, because once they reached the bubbly mid-section, Becker drifted into an Alex Lifeson-type monologue, covering such subjects as young girls and smoking Mother Nature. It was an unexpectedly fun moment - for both musician and audience - and Becker ended his story by seamlessly teeing up "the Cuervo Gold" and "the fine Colombian" for the Embassy Brats, which the girls knocked out of the park in blissful three-part harmony.
Yes, you read that last paragraph correctly: "Hey Nineteen" was a highlight of the show!
A few songs later, the band again departed familiar ground in a less-edgy (but no less moody) version of "Show Biz Kids", with both Fagen and the girls seemingly really enjoying the message behind their vocals. This number furthered the theme of the song list for the show, which leaned heavily upon both Aja and Countdown to Ecstasy.
At the back end of a cover of James Brown's "Papa Don't Take No Mess," Becker methodically introduced the Miles High Big Band, and was followed by Fagen's intro for the pastoral "Dirty Work." The Embassy Brats handled the vocals for this tune, and while they certainly did a capable job, the absence of the sensibility of original vocalist David Palmer's melancholy "yearn" is sadly missed.
However, the girls left "Dirty Work" in the dust by also carrying the vocals for the following tune, Pretzel Logic's "Parker's Band". With the group ripping into this up-tempo frolic, the one genuine mystery about the song list was emphatically answered. Fagen acknowledged (in fanboi fashion) the song's tip-of-the-cap to Kansas City's greatest musical product, jazz legend Charlie Parker. Needless to say, it was a tight, excellent rendition.
To close out the night, the band obliged the buzzing crowd with dance tune after dance tune - starting with "Josie" and ending with "Reelin' in the Years". Nearly the entire audience was on their collective feet at this point, and dozens of fans dosey-doe'd and Charleston'd to their collective heart's content throughout the Starlight's various concourses. Some groups of fans even had their moves choreographed!
Almost no one in the packed house departed before the band returned for the encore, which turned out to be the only song of the night off of Royal Scam, "Kid Charlemagne". Again, Herington took a subdued approach with the signature guitar solo, leaving the audience to soak in the ensemble as a whole topping off their night with an energetic exclamation point. The group could have easily returned for another encore or two, but Becker and Fagen strolled offstage together at 10:30, while the ringers behind them played out a touching, dissonant instrumental - bringing to an end an all-around fine performance.
On this night, a cast of thirteen incredible musicians breathed life into one of the most off-beat chapters of America's rock and roll history. Becker and Fagen proved once again that they clearly understand how to put together a song, how to put together a band and how to put together a rock and roll show. One would dearly hope that these guys would choose to return to Kansas City on their next tour.
East St. Louis Toodle-Oo
Your Gold Teeth
Time Out Of Mind
Lunch with Gina
Show Biz Kids
Home At Last
Papa Don't Take No Mess (James Brown cover)
My Old School
Reelin' In the Years