by Anthony Kershaw
July 21, 2013. Molson Amphitheatre, Toronto, ON — I was having lunch with a budding R&B singer last week and she was discussing the differences between performing artists and ‘recording’ artists. The studio is safe and a good producer can always ‘fix it in the mix’. Live music is always a risk. The seminal jazz/rock group of the 70s and 80s, Steely Dan is such a recording group, rarely venturing out for a tour. It was not because they were afraid; their recordings rewrote the book on rock and roll recording. Incredibly complex with technical/musical standards not matched before or after.
A lot of water has flowed under the musical bridge in the past 45 years (can it be?) and now the genius duo tour regularly. The trick, which was always the problem, is how to replicate the technical and musical perfection they achieved in their many studio albums. That’s becoming easier as time goes by — musical standards are at an all time high, at least with trained pros. As such, and like all smart people, Steely Dan surrounded itself with the finest musicians I’ve yet heard on a jazz or rock stage. Eleven musicians that replicated much of what you’ll hear on the 70s/80s recordings.
The Steely Dan catalogue is unsurpassed in its unique musical genre. They’ve gone back to the studio in recent years after Donald Fagen went solo and recorded the greatest single soloist album of that same genre, The Nightfly. The later stuff is still good, but pales compared to the ingenuity and invention of the the earlier music. With the 80 plus songs on Citizen Steely Dan 1972 - 1980 Box Set, you’ll get a brilliant musical depiction of life growing up as artists, writers and musicians in the most uninspired of decades. Bad hair, bad jeans, but amazing music. Each song is a gem and covers a multitude of styles.
Last night, the packed audience of 15,000 under a warm Toronto sky enjoyed every minute of the two hour show. The guys like to throw in a few new charts, but the show covered all their most musical decades. The crowd loved all the styles — the harmonically advanced Aja, straight ahead pop like Reelin’ in the Years, Peg and Josie, of course, and three from their greatest album, Gaucho: Time Out of Mind, Hey Nineteen and Babylon Sisters. Great to hear two of my favourites, Green Earrings and Bhodisattva. Setlist is linked below.
Walter Becker did most of the talking and a little singing along with his important guitar work, but it was the ultra cool 65 year old Fagen that held the audience spellbound. Fagen’s voice is unique — expressive, musical, almost a form of ‘sprechstimme’, at times. True, he’s lost his very effective top octave, but the energy and style are still there.
I’ve heard criticism from friends and other journalists of Steely Dan’s past tours. Musically uninvolving and not indicative of the albums’ purity. Not here. It’s early on in the tour and the show was tight and blocked to perfection. The stadium sound at the Molson Amphitheatre was awful — humped bass, lots over over amplified treble and zero mid range — but I was not there as an audiophile, just a fan.
The musicians? Wow! All brilliant, but it was warming to see a few grey hairs: the great Jim Pugh on trombone (Distinguished Professor of Trombone at The University of Illinois). I kept smiling thinking to myself about his students - ‘hey Distinguished Prof. Pugh, what are you doing this summer? Oh, I’m touring with Steely Dan!’. So bloody cool. Also wonderful, alto/tenor Walt Weiskopf, trumpeter extarordinaire Michael Leonhart, music director/guitar Jon Herington (whose every famous Dan lick was played to perfection) and drummer Keith Carlock. All helped transport me from stage to studio.
It was a special concert for me. I got to enjoy it with my 22 year old son, Matthew, a huge Steely Dan fan (I indoctrinated him early, he just didn’t know it). It was good to see young people there along with all the hipsters. The tour continues. If you only remember Steely Dan from the studio and love it that way, I urge you to check out this tour. In a year where I’ve reviewed a lot of incredible concerts (Vienna Phil, baroque French Opera, Toronto Symphony, amazing chamber recitals) and played/conducted a lot, Steely Dan has been the musical highlight.