Reelin’ In The Years At PNC Bank Arts Center

Steely Dan treat New Jersey audience with great show in Donald Fagen’s home state

Last night, I saw Steely Dan at PNC Bank Arts Center, a great midsize amphitheater-style outdoor venue in Holmdel, N.J. My fourth and last concert in June was dynamite, ending a busy month of live music on a high note.

Should I have been surprised that Donald Fagen and his band once again put on a stellar performance? After all, the two previous times I had seen them were both fantastic.

PNC Bank Arts Center is a 7,000-seat venue with an additional grass area capacity to accommodate about 10,500 people

The songs Fagen wrote with his longtime partner Walter Becker remain compelling. Since Becker’s untimely death in 2017, Fagen also successfully continued what had been a key ingredient to the Dan’s sound: Surround himself with top-notch musicians. And, boy, what a killer backing band he had last night!

But even with all of the above, I think one should never take a music artist for granted. And, let’s face it: At age 74, Fagen isn’t exactly any longer, hey, nineteen! I also still remember reading accounts leading up to the two previous times I saw Fagen & co. in 2018, which were less than favorable, criticizing Fagen’s singing, among others. But just like four years ago, he did it again, proving any such concerns to be unfounded!

Steely Dan in action: Donald Fagen (vocals, keyboards, melodica), Jon Herington (lead guitar & musical director), Adam Rogers (guitar), Jim Beard (keyboards), Walt Weiskopf & Roger Rosenberg (saxophones), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone), “Ready” Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums) & The Danettes: Carolyn Leonhart, Jamie Leonart and La Tanya Hall (backing vocals)

Before I get to Steely Dan, I’d like to acknowledge opening act Dave Stryker Trio. Until I learned and read about Dave Stryker, I had not heard of this great American jazz guitarist who has been active since the ’80s. Quoting his online bio, Whether you’ve heard guitarist Dave Stryker leading his own group (with 34 CD’s as a leader to date),  or as a featured sideman with Stanley Turrentine, Jack McDuff, and many others, you know why the Village Voice calls him “one of the most distinctive guitarists to come along in recent years.”

Last evening, Stryker (electric guitar) was joined by Jared Gold, who I thought was terrific on the Hammond, as well as McClenty Hunter, a fine jazz drummer. They played neat jazz instrumental jam versions of songs by artists like Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and The Temptations.

The Hammond reminded me of the man who originally was supposed to join Steely Dan on their Earth After Hours Tour, Steve Winwood. I’m not gonna lie, seeing Winwood for the third time would have been the ultimate thrill. A short February 1 announcement on Winwood’s website cited “unforeseen circumstances” for the change in plans. Back to Dave Stryker. Here’s a cool clip of Papa Was a Rolling Stone from a 2019 performance at jazz radio station WBGO 88.3 fm – groovy with no static at all!

Okay, after seven paragraphs into this review, you may start to wonder when am I finally getting to some Steely Dan music? Alrighty then! Let’s shake it! First up is Night by Night, a tune from Steely Dan’s third studio album Pretzel Logic released in February 1974 – the last that featured the band’s original quintet lineup of Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jim Hodder, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Unfortunately, it appears the dreadful pandemic has made audiences pretty restless. I don’t recall people getting up during shows pre-COVID as frequently as I’ve experienced it during all of my four concerts in June. Frankly, I find it pretty dreadful!

I think it’s safe to say many Steely Dan fans consider Aja to be Messrs. Fagen’s and Becker’s Mount Rushmore. It certainly remains my favorite Dan album. Let’s hear it for the title track. According to Songfacts, Fagen told Rolling Stone magazine that the title came from a high school friend whose brother was in the army and came back with a Korean wife named Aja, although he wasn’t sure how she spelled it.

For this next tune, let’s go to Gaucho, the seventh and final Steely Dan album from November 1980 before Fagen and Becker split and went on a 12-year hiatus. Becker moved to Maui, managed to overcome his longtime drug abuse, and did some occasional production work, most notably for British pop group China Crisis. Meanwhile, Fagen launched a solo career that among others yielded The Nightfly, his solo debut gem from October 1982. Back to Gaucho with Babylon Sisters with another fun tidbit from Songfacts, probably less fun for those involved: Donald Fagen made seemingly endless tweaks to this song, creating one mix after another. Someone in the studio must have been keeping count, because when he hit 250 mixes, the crew gave him a “platinum” disk they created just for him. Fagen kept going, and it was mix number 274 that finally won his approval. He took that mix home to New York, but heard a note in the bass line he didn’t like, so he returned to Los Angeles a week later and reconvened the team to fix it. You gotta shake it, baby, you gotta shake it!

I guess our memories of school can be good and not so good. Clearly, this next tune falls into the latter category. Songfacts notes My Old School, the final track of last night’s main set, is at least partially inspired by an event that occurred at Bard [Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. where Fagen and Becker met in 1967 – CMM], where both Becker and Fagen, along with their girlfriends, were arrested in a pot raid on a party that was orchestrated by an ambitious young District Attorney named G. Gordon Liddy (hence the line “Tried to warn ya about Geno and Daddy G”). Despite the fact that California has not (yet) tumbled into the sea, both Fagen and Becker have returned to Bard.

The last tune I’d like to call out, from the encore, is a song that reportedly was one of the Dan’s least favorite. Again citing Songfacts: In Rolling Stone, September 17, 2009, Donald Fagan said, “It’s dumb but effective.” Walter Becker added, “It’s no fun.” Well, Reelin’ in the Years may not have a million chord changes and breaks, but in my humble opinion, this tune, off Steely Dan’s November 1972 debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, is a terrific rocker with a dynamite guitar solo. I wonder how Fagen feels about the song these days. It surely still looks effective!

What else is there to say. Donald Fagen clearly seemed to be energized last night, saying at one point, ‘what a night!’ – and he wasn’t referring to the one in late December back in sixty-three. Playing in his home state of New Jersey, as he called the garden state at the end of the show, appeared to be a thrill. Who, knows, it may even have influenced Fagen’s decision to replace Green Earrings and Any Major Dude Will Tell You with Josie and Black Cow, respectively – two additional tracks from the above-mentioned beloved Aja album. The only thing that could have topped the set would have been Deacon Blues, my all-time favorite Dan tune. But, hey, nineteen, stop complaining! 🙂

I already briefly mentioned the exceptional band that backs Fagen on the tour. These amazing musicians, some of whom have played with Steely Dan for many years, deserve to be called out: Jon Herington (lead guitar & musical director), Adam Rogers (guitar), Jim Beard (keyboards), Walt Weiskopf & Roger Rosenberg (saxophones), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone), “Ready” Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums) & The Danettes: Carolyn Leonhart, Jamie Leonart and La Tanya Hall (backing vocals).

Here’s the setlist:
Phantom Raiders (Stanley Wilson cover)
Night by Night
Hey Nineteen
Black Friday
Kid Charlemagne
Home at Last
Green Flower Street (Donald Fagen song)
Time Out of Mind
Babylon Sisters
• Josie
• Black Cow
Dirty Work
Keep That Same Old Feeling (The Crusaders cover)
My Old School

Reelin’ in the Years
A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry (Joe Williams cover)

The Earth After Hours Tour still is in full swing. Tomorrow night, the Dan are scheduled to play Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass., before moving on to Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Bethel, N.Y. (July 3) and First Bank Amphitheater, Franklin, Tenn. (July 13). The full tour schedule is here. If you’re a fan of the Dan and still can get a ticket you can afford, I can highly recommend the show!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Dave Stryker website; Steve Winwood website; Steely Dan website; YouTube


23 thoughts on “Reelin’ In The Years At PNC Bank Arts Center”

  1. Christian, it was quite a thrill to read your detailed review. It was difficult to listen and watch the youtubes because of what you already mentioned, people getting up and walking around like it was a high school football game instead of a live concert for one of the best bands that ever existed. And the chattering! Wow! Like casting pearls before a herd of swine, no offense to swine. Have you heard of something called a pin drop concert? I wish the greats that are still around would do pin drop concerts with a select audience that sign some kind of waiver to be reverent, and then have the “swine people” do live ppv to watch it at something like a movie theater screen. I’d be willing to pay a pretty penny to be in the pin drop audience in a small acoustically superior venue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lisa, people constantly getting up and, yes, talking is annoying. Perhaps I remember this wrongly, but I don’t recall it in that extreme fashion pre-COVID. I mean. sure, you had folks get up during shows, but not all the time!

      I wasn’t familiar with the pin drop concert, but it surely sounds like an attractive concept. And, yes, I’d also be willing to pay a premium for it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad I went back, do it again!:-)

      The setlist was definitely cool, even without my all-time favorite “Deacon Blues”. I’m glad they played “Night By Night”, which I had known but kind of forgotten about – great tune!

      While I dig Steely Dan big time, this was my third show. That’s even more than the Stones!

      Frankly, part of my initial motivation to get a ticket was Steve Winwood as the planned opening act. I just love the man!

      Given high ticket prices, I think going forward, I might prefer picking shows by artists I haven’t seen yet.

      But when I see somebody like John Mellencamp, Bonnie Rait and, yes, friggin’ Steely Dan returning to my neck of the woods, I’ll probably once again go weak, I go weak, weak in the presence of beauty!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It would have been cool to see Steve winwood too. I’ve kind of become a fan of his lately even though I always did like him anyway. I’ve been listening to the album Arc of a Diver and I like the title song so much that I just moved it up into my top 100 of the ’70s. What a great song. I wasn’t very familiar with all those albums he did before the 80s but it’s actually better.
        It’s cool you go to so many concerts cuz I was never a real big concert goer, for as much as I’m into music. But now I really regret all the ones I could have gone to but didn’t. Somebody would come and I had the chance to see them but I just passed it up and now it’s too late. Speaking of it’s too late, I made sure I saw Carole King in 93 cuz I waited so long. I didn’t know if I would have another chance. But most of the time I just pass up opportunities to go to concerts.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. While it’s true that over the past 6-8 years or so I’ve ramped up my concert visits, June with four shows was an exception. For now, I haven’t planned anything further. It really gets to be an expensive hobby!

        Other than a short performance during Earth Day in Washington, D.C. 10-plus years ago, unfortunately, I didn’t see Carole King. I love this lady, and that’s something I regret to this day.

        On the other hand, if you’re a music fan who is into many different bands and solo artists, you simply can’t see them all. It’s painful but it’s the truth!


      3. I saw her when I was in college and I always remember what year it was because I only went to college for one year. lol. But I was a fan since I was a little kid like 6 or 7 years old , and my father told me that she doesn’t tour, so I was really excited because it was 20 years since she last did one.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Frankly, it’s a bit of a mystery what happened. A short Feb 1 announcement on Winwood’s website read, “due to unforeseen circumstances, Steve will not be appearing with Steely Dan on the upcoming Spring/Summer 2022 tour. The scheduled Steely Dan shows will still take place, but with Aimee Mann and Snarky Puppy appearing as special guests. Please stay tuned for new show announcements.”

        As we since learned, Aimee Mann was dropped since Donald Fagen apparently felt she wasn’t the best fit musically. As much as I dig Donald Fagen, this was terribly handled by team Fagen.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. Sounds really cool. You never know if it’s gonna be the the last time that you’ll ever get to see people like this considering how old they’re getting. It might be your last chance. Ya never know. I’m glad he did most of my favorite Steely Dan songs, but too bad he didn’t do Do It Again, but that probably would have been a bitch to re-create live anyways. That one and Time out of Mind and Peg and Dirty Work are my favorite Steely Dan songs now. But there’s a whole shitload that I love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Steely Dan’s catalog is amazing. I like both the early more rock-oriented songs and the more sophisticated jazz-oriented tunes a la “Aja”.

      Donald Fagen had a killer band, as he usually does. I have no doubt they easily could have played “Do It Again” and it would have sounded dynamite. I love that tune as well.

      But unless you’re Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen and have the energy to play way beyond two hours, you have to be really selective. That becomes a challenge when there are so many great songs to choose from – nice problem to have but still tricky!


  3. Too bad about the restless crowd. I saw that at the Dylan concert I went to. People couldn’t sit still for 1 1/2 hours without getting up every two minutes. Instead of a pin drop concert how about a pin head concert and all those people can go to that?

    Interestingly, I was listening to some Dan on Spotify, and “Night by Night” came on. This was like, two days ago. So how cool is it that that is the opening number? As to the opening act, the guy they had explains something that recently happened which is that Fagen dumped Aimee Mann from the tour. She’s a big fan of the Dan but he felt her music wouldn’t go over. I disagree.

    Just about that whole ‘Gaucho’ album to me sounds like it had the life overproduced out of it. Not my favorite at all.

    Lastly, you may well know this but Chevy Chase played drums with Becker and Fagen back at Bard

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Restless people should be banned from live concerts. When you think about pre-COVID shows you saw, was it that bad back then as well? I seem to recall it differently, but maybe my memories are distorted.

      The Aimee Mann story, which I had heard of in passing, is really unfortunate – how humiliating! It was very poorly handled by team Fagen. At least, he issued a public apology and took responsibility. Still, screw-up, as he put it himself!

      Essentially, I know Aimee Mann by name only. I’m currently listening to her most recent album and find it pretty enjoyable.

      I mean, sure, she doesn’t sound exactly like Steely Dan, but why would you want that in the first place?

      I can see when you’re Donald Fagen that perhaps you wouldn’t invite a punk band to open your shows. Plus, Fagen’s original opening act Steve Winwood isn’t exactly jazz pop either. I find the hole saga a bit puzzling!

      Have you heard some of Dave Stryker’s music? If not, I think he’d be up your alley. While I enjoyed his set, the one thing I will say his music is much better suited for a small jazz club than a midsize outdoor venue like PNC.

      Last but not least, I had read about the early Chevy Chase connection before. I also heard he’s not a very pleasant person off screen.


      1. …sorry. Young girls in our row who ran out for beer every five minutes. I cannot explain the Dylan crowd at all.

        As to Mann, I think Fagen is mistaken if he believes that his audience is all jazzers. Half of them could just as easily go to see AC/DC the next night.

        I didn’t know Stryker but I listened and he sounded good. Odd song choice by him.

        As to Chevy, I read an article recently about unpopular SNL people. Half the articles were about him.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Steely Dan has toured more in the 2000’s more than they ever did in the 70s or 80s. Glad you got to see them Christian! You are racking them up this year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right Steely Dan picked up the touring after Fagen and Becker reunited.

      That most recent show I saw was probably my last big ticket concert for some time. Two of the four gigs in June had been rescheduled. It’s certainly not a pace I would be able to maintain!

      I’m considering Tedeschi Trucks Band in late Sep/early October when they are scheduled to play a series of shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m glad you got to see those…what a month!
        Trucks knows the Beacon well lol. With them it’s all about the music…which is a great thing.

        Liked by 1 person

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