Steely Dan And The Doobie Brothers End Double Headliner Tour On High Notes

Both bands deliver powerful sets at New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center

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The Summer Of Living Dangerously was supposed to have wrapped up on Saturday in Bethel, N.Y. Instead, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers brought their double-headlining tour to a close yesterday at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. – and what a glorious night it was for both bands!

Initially, the show had been scheduled for July 6. But due to an illness of one of the musicians, the gig had been postponed on short notice. Luckily, it didn’t get cancelled altogether. After all, as The Doobies’ Tom Johnston put it, this was the end of “a long and draining tour” with Steely Dan. But while more than 30 dates crammed in just three months must have been exhausting, you surely didn’t notice any of the musicians were worn out. On the contrary, at times, it seemed they were playing as if it was their last gig ever!

The Summer Of Living Dangerously

As I usually do leading up to concerts, I checked YouTube for recent performances, setlist.fm and online reviews to get a better feeling what to expect. In this case, I noticed the reviews were consistently great for The Doobies but more on the mixed side for Steely Dan. Some reviewers were disappointed that unlike the southern rockers, Donald Fagen left out Dan gems like Deacon Blues and Do It Again. Others noted Fagen’s voice sounded challenged, especially on the high notes. YouTube clips I had watched prior to the show seemed to confirm some of what the above reviews noted.

Based on the above, I had definitely adjusted my expectations – after all, who wants to be disappointed! As such, I was anticipating a solid set from The Doobies and more of a mixed bag from Donald Fagen/Steely Dan. What I feel I got instead were kick-ass performances from each! While Fagen’s vocal performance may have varied during some of the tour’s previous shows, I thought he was in great shape last night! Maybe it helped that the boy from Passaic, N.J. was home at last, as he acknowledged at some point. Fagen also showed signs that he enjoyed himself – something I understand he’s not particularly known for!

The Doobie Brothers.jpg
Current lineup of The Doobie Brothers (left to right): John Cowan (bass, vocals), Patrick Simmons (guitars, vocals, co-founder), Ed Tooth (drums), Marc Russo (saxophone), Tom Johnston (guitars, vocals, co-founder), John McFee (guitars, pedal steel, dobro, fiddle, vocals, core member since 1979) and Bill Payne (keyboards; not in photo)

The Doobies kicked off the great night. From the very first bars of Natural Thing to the last note of the second encore Listen To The Music, these guys sounded as terrific as they did the first time I saw them some 20 years ago: the harmony singing, the dynamic of the music – everything was still there, and it all still sounded fresh – pretty amazing! What more could you possibly ask for?

Time for some clips. I decided to capture and use my own video material. This comes with all the caveats you have, recording with a smartphone that isn’t latest generation and when you’re not exactly sitting in the first row. But at least it’s authentic!:-)

First up: Rockin’ Down The Highway. Penned by Johnston, this great rocker appeared on Toulouse Street, The Doobies’ second studio album from July 1972 and their commercial breakthrough.

Another classic from Toulouse Street is Jesus Is Just Alright. For some reason, I had always thought of it as an original Doobies tune – I was wrong. According to Wikipedia, the song, a gospel tune, was written by Arthur Reid Reynolds and first recorded by his band The Art Reynolds Singers for their 1966 studio album Tellin’ It Like It is. Who knew.

In general, I’m more drawn to the early phase of The Doobies – basically, their first five studio records. One of the exceptions is Cycles, the band’s 10th studio album from May 1989, the first record following their reunion after the 1982 break-up. One of the tunes from Cycles I dig is the opener The Doctor, a co-write by Johnston and the record’s co-producers Charlie Midnight and Eddie Schwartz. Last night, the nice honky-tonk piano by Bill Payne and Johnston’s guitar work stood out to me. It’s just a seductive tune overall that’s very reminiscent of the early Doobies.

Another classic by the southern rockers is Long Train Runnin’. Written by Johnston, the tune was included on the band’s third studio album The Captain And Me, released in March 1973. I’ve always dug the combination of funk and rock in this song. This is also a great track to call out killer saxophonist Marc Russo. The guy must have been blowing out his lungs! Long Train Runnin’ was the last track of the band’s regular set, so I guess that’s the reason why they extended it. It meant more great sax playing. The audience certainly loved it!

And while I could keep on raving about southern rockers, I also need to get to Fagen & Co., so I’m going to wrap up The Doobies’ section with an additional gem from The Captain And Me: China Grove, yet another Johnston composition and the first encore. If you’re curious what else they played, you can check here.

After such a dynamic set from The Doobies, the bar certainly had been set high for Steely Dan. Of course, Fagen and his former partner Walter Becker have been known for playing with top-notch musicians, so I hadn’t had any real concerns the band somehow wouldn’t be up to par. It was mostly Fagen I had wondered about. But as noted at the outset, he had a great night, so I really couldn’t have been more happy!

Steely Dan Collage
Current lineup of Steely Dan: Upper row (left to right): Jon Herington (guitar), Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums), Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax) and Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax). Lower row (left to right): Jim Pugh (trombone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet) and The Danettes La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell & Carolyn Leonhart. Far right: Donald Fagen

Following a set-opening jazz instrumental performed by just the band (see lineup in caption of above photo collage I put together), during which the musicians immediately took the opportunity to shine, Fagen entered the stage. In a deviation from previous set lists I had seen, they played Black Cow, the opener from Dan’s masterpiece Aja. Apparently, it was swapped with Josie, which during earlier gigs had been included later in the set. Here’s my clip.

Next up: Black Friday from Katy Lied, Steely Dan’s fourth studio album that appeared in March 1975. The record was the first after the break-up of the band’s original five-piece lineup. At that time, Fagen and Becker had decided to stop touring and become a studio band. Additionally, they increasingly were relying on top-notch session musicians for their recordings. Among the latter were guitarist Rick Derringer, drummer Jeff Porcaro and Michael McDonald (backing vocals), who BTW just a month after the record’s release joined The Doobie Brothers.

While as previously noted Fagen & co.  didn’t play Do It Again, one of my favorite early Dan tunes, they performed Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, another early gem I dig. It appeared on Dan’s third studio album Pretzel Logic from February 1974. Also released separately as the record’s first single in April that year, it became their biggest hit, climbing all the way to no. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

Steely Dan didn’t skip Can’t Buy A Thrill altogether. In fact, they played two tunes from their studio debut released in November 1972. One was Dirty Work, which prominently featured the band’s excellent backing vocalists La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell and Carolyn Leonhart, a.k.a. The Danettes.

The last tune of the regular set was My Old School from Steely Dan’s sophomore album Countdown To Ecstasy, which came out in July 1973. Like predecessor Bodhisattva, it featured Connor Kennedy, a young guitar virtuoso hailing from Woodstock, N.Y., who had toured with Fagen last year as part of a band called The Nightflyers.

The amazing Reelin’ In The Years, the second tune from Can’t Buy A Thrill, was the first encore and the last Dan tune of the night. To see what other songs they played you can check here. Reelin’ In The Years also included Kennedy who traded guitar licks with Jon Herington. Unfortunately, while I was recording this great performance, Facebook cheerfully informed me that something had gone wrong and that my live video had stopped – bummer! But with close to 4 minutes, at least I captured a good chunk of it, so decided it was worthwhile keeping and including the clip in this post. Plus, Fagen’s outgoing “yah!” that precedes the performance is kind of cool!

Based on what I experienced last night, I can highly recommend the show, except of course that particular tour is now over. But looking at their schedules, each band already has additional dates on the calendar for this year. The Doobies resume performing in San Francisco on September 20 together with the Eagles – that should be fun! There are also dates in San Diego; Clearwater, Fla., Greensburg, Pa.; and two special shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre in mid-November, where they will perform the albums Toulouse Street and The Captain And Me in their entirety, along with other songs.

Steely Dan has 18 additional dates on the schedule starting October 1, including a nine-gig residency at the Beacon Theatre, beginning October 17. Like The Doobies, these are special performances dedicated to select Dan albums, including The Royal Scam (May 1976), Aja, Countdown to Ecstasy and Gaucho (November 1980). There are also shows focusing on Fagen’s first solo album The Nightfly (October 1982), a gig billed as “greatest hits,” as well as an on-demand concert, based on fan voting.

I have to say, Dan’s Aja performance sounds really tempting, especialy since they left out Deacon Blues and Josie last night. Plus. I’ve never been to the Beacon Theatre, a venue where The Allman Brothers used to perform, making it something like “holy ground.” You see what I did here? Trying to rationale spending additional money on yet another concert. We shall see!

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Doobie Brothers official website, Steely Dan official website, YouTube

“The Making of Aja” Is A Must See For Fans Of True Music Craftsmanship

Documentary provides commentary from Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and studio musicians who were involved in the recording of Steely Dan’s masterpiece

With my Steely Dan show (okay, make that Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan band) coming up tonight, not surprisingly, Fagen and his former partner in crime Walter Becker have been on my mind. As I usually do prior to concerts, I was browsing YouTube last night to get a peek from the band’s recent performances. Since I’m admittedly a bit of a music geek, of course, I’ve also checked setlist.fm and have a good idea of what to expect. Suddenly, I stumbled across The Making Of Aja, a fascinating film that documents the recording of what I feel is Steely Dan’s absolute masterpiece and certainly one of my favorite records of all time.

Surprisingly, there is very little public information about the film. According to IMDb, it appeared in 1999 and was produced by British television director Alan Lewens. The documentary’s official title is Classic Albums: Steely Dan: Aja. It breaks down each of the magnificent tracks on the record, featuring interviews with Becker, Fagen, Aja producer Gary Katz, guitarists Larry Carlton and Dean Parks, bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Rick Marotta and other musicians involved in the cumbersome process of recording the album.

Even if you don’t love Steely Dan’s music, I think you’ll still enjoy this documentary, as long as you like music craftsmanship and have at least some degree of interest in how great music is created. Enough of the upfront talking, or I should better say writing, and time to get to some clips!

Here’s the section of the film that discusses the songs Black Cow and Home At Last. It starts with Fagen doing a hilarious rap singing uptown, baby, uptown, baby, alluding to the track Deja Vu by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz (frankly, no idea about these guys!), who sampled a snippet of Black Cow. Among others, he and Fagen also discuss the meaning of the title; other than that it was a soft drink with ice cream that was popular when they were kids, the two music geniuses don’t appear to be absolutely sure what was in the beverage!

The next film excerpt is about Deacon Blues, my favorite Dan tune. Among others, Becker and Fagen isolate different tracks of the song on the mixing board, which I find particularly fascinating. Also very telling is the following commentary by session guitarist Parks: “One interesting thing about Donald and Walter is that perfection is not what they are after. They are after something you wanna listen to over and over again. So we would work past the perfection point until it became natural – until it sounded almost improvised.” That’s an interesting observation. You’d think that doing the same parts over and over again would be the equivalent of over-rehearsing, which to me sounds like the opposite of improvisation!

The last section I’d like to highlight is about the album’s closer Josie. It starts off with bassist Rainey discussing the song’s bass line – something I’m particularly drawn to as a former bass player. Fagen and Becker also discuss their reliance on session musicians. “Around the time we made Aja we had figured out what it was we sort of wanted to do, you know, musically” explains Fagen. “We realized that we needed session musicians who had a larger pallet of things they could do and who were also good readers because they were coming in cold.”

Have I whet your appetite? Well, in case you’d like to watch the remainder of the documentary and don’t mind Japanese subtitles, here’s a clip of what appears to be the entire film or most of it.

Sources: Wikipedia, IMDb, YouTube

My Longtime Favorite Albums

Ten records I continue to enjoy after more than three decades

Earlier this week, I got nominated on Facebook to name 10 music albums that have made an impact on me and that I continue to enjoy today. The task was to post one album cover daily, and each time when doing so to nominate somebody else to do the same. Usually, I don’t participate in these types of chain activities, so initially, I ignored it. But since it was a close relative, who had nominated me, and music is my passion after all, I decided to go along. The exercise of identifying the 10 records inspired this post.

Because I found it impossible to limit myself to just 10 albums, I decided to narrow the field to only those records I started listening to as a teenager and in my early 20s. This explains why some of my favorite artists like The Allman Brothers Band, Buddy Guy and even The Rolling Stones are “missing.” It was only later that I started exploring them and many other artists I like today in greater detail. Without further ado, here is the list in no particular order, together with one song from each album.

As frequent readers of the blog know, I’m a huge fan of The Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their 8th studio album from May 1967, is my favorite among their records.

The Beatles_Sgt. Pepper

Here’s the great closer A Day In The Life, which except for the middle section was mainly written by John Lennon, though as usually was credited to him and Paul McCartney.

Tapestry by Carole King was one of the earliest albums I listened to when I was 10 years old or so. Back then, I didn’t understand the lyrics but liked the music. Today, I dig the record for both the music and the lyrics. There is a timeless beauty in King’s tunes, and to me Tapestry is perhaps the ultimate singer-songwriter record.

carole-king-tapestry

There are so many great songs on this gem from February 1971, so it’s hard to chose one. Here’s Way Over Yonder. King’s soulful singing and the saxophone solo are two of the tune’s features I’ve always liked.

The Eagles’ Hotel California is an album I’ve owned on vinyl since I guess the early ’80s. It was released in December 1976 as the band’s fifth studio record.

Eagles_Hotel California

Here’s a live version of the epic title song, which is included in the album’s 40th anniversary deluxe edition that appeared in November last year. The tune was co-written by Don Felder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The distinct extended guitar interplay at the end featured Felder and Joe Walsh. This tune just never gets boring!

It was the Born In The U.S.A. album from June 1984, which put Bruce Springsteen on my radar screen.

Bruce Springsteen_Born In The USA

Here’s Bobby Jean, one of the album’s few tunes that wasn’t also released separately as a single. On this one, I particularly love the saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons, who was such an ace player.

Deep Purple to this day remains my first choice when it comes to hard rock, and Machine Head from March 1972 is the crown jewel in their catalog. The band’s sixth studio album featured their best line-up that included Ian Gillan (vocals), Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), Roger Glover (bass) and Ian Paice (drums, percussion).

Deep Purple_Machine Head

Here’s Pictures Of Home, which like all tracks on the album were credited to all members of the band. In addition to Lord’s great keyboard work, one of the tune’s characteristic features is a cool bass solo by Glover (starting at 3:40 minutes).

My introduction to John Mellencamp was Scaregrow, his eighth studio album from August 1995, but it was the follow-up record The Lonesome Jubilee, released in August 1987, that turned me into a fan.

John Mellencamp_The Lonesome Jubilee

Here is the great opener Paper In Fire, which also became the album’s lead single. Like all tunes except one, it was written by Mellencamp.

While it was pretty clear to me that a Pink Floyd album needed to be among my longtime top 10 records, the decision which one to pick wasn’t easy. I decided to go with The Dark Side Of The Moon but also could have gone with Wish You Were Here. I started listening to both albums at around the same time during the second half of the ’70s.

Pink Floyd_The Dark Side Of The Moon

I’ve chosen to highlight The Great Gig In The Sky. I’ve always liked the incredible part by vocalist Clare Torry.

I believe the first Steely Dan song I ever heard was Do It Again on the radio. By the time I got to Aja, I already knew the band’s debut record Can’t Buy A Thrill and, because of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, their third album Pretzel Logic. While I liked both of these records, the Aja album from September 1977 became my favorite, after a good friend had brought it to my attention.

Steely Dan_Aja

Here is Deacon Blues, which also was released separately as the album’s second single. Like all tunes on the record, it was co-written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

I was hooked to Live Rust the very first time I listened to it. Neil Young’s album from November 1979 pretty much is a live compilation of his greatest ’70s hits.

Neil Young_Live Rust

My, My, Hey, Hey (Out Of The Blue) is among the record’s highlights. The song was co-written by Young and Jeff Blackburn.

Led Zeppelin wasn’t exactly love at first sight. My first exposure was Led Zeppelin IV, the band’s fourth studio album from November 1971. I bought the record because of Stairway To Heaven.

Led Zeppelin_Led Zeppelin IV

I had listened to Stairway on the radio where they always faded it out before the heavy rock section at the end of the tune. I still remember the shock when I listened to the song in its entirety for the first time. I had just started taking classic guitar lessons and was very much into acoustic guitar. I simply couldn’t understand how Zep could have “ruined” this beautiful song by giving it a heavy metal ending. Well, today it is exactly because of its build why this track has become one of my favorite tunes. But instead of Stairway, I’d like to finish this post with Going To California, a beautiful acoustic ballad co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Steely Dan/ Aja

Aja is the highlight of Steely Dan’s awesome music catalog

Oftentimes, rock music is best when it’s simple – typically, three chords, a good groove and at least average vocals is all you need. But like with most things, there are exceptions to the rule. When it comes to rock music, to me Steely Dan undoubtedly is one of them.

Steely Dan’s music, which oftentimes blends rock with other genres, particularly jazz, tends to be pretty complex: rich instrumentation, many chords, complicated breaks, you name it – frankly, music like this is a recipe for disaster, unless it’s perfectly executed. But perfect execution is exactly where Steely Dan excels!

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker

Originally, Steely Dan was a five-piece band. But since 1975’s Katy Lied, their fourth studio album, Steely Dan first and foremost has been the ingenious songwriting partnership of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. While both are also great keyboard and guitar/bass players, respectively, they have always hired top-notch session musicians for any studio work and concert tours.

Released in September 1977, Aja is Steely Dan’s sixth studio album. In my opinion, this record is the crown jewel of Fagen’s and Becker’s amazing music catalog. I was reminded about this just the other evening when I saw an excellent Steely Dan tribute band called The Royal Scam – named after Steely Dan’s 1976 studio album, the predecessor to Aja.

Aja kicks off with Black Cow. Like all songs on the album, the tune was written by Fagen and Becker. Black Cow was also released as the B-side to Josie, the record’s third single. Notably, Becker did not play on the recording. The guitar and bass parts, which he oftentimes takes over in the studio, were played by session musicians Larry Carlton and Chuck Rainey, respectively

Next up is the album’s title song, which is pronounced “Asia” and has an association with the continent. In fact, according to Songfacts, “Steely Dan have several songs with a Far East influence, since Donald Fagan believes it is a symbol of sensuality” – oh, well! At just under eight minutes, Aja is also the record’s longest track. The song is perhaps the best example of how complex Steely Dan’s music can get with a million chords, frequent changes in tempo, breaks, etc. Yet it all works out and the result is outstanding!

The next tune, Deacon Blues, is one of my favorites on the album and from Steely Dan overall. It was also released as the record’s second single. Like with many songs written by Fagen and Becker, people have wondered about the meaning of the lyrics. When asked during a Rolling Stone interview in 2006 about the line, “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues,” Fagan explained: “Walter and I had been working on that song at a house in Malibu. I played him that line, and he said. “You mean it’s like, ‘They call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this loser, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues?”‘ And I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Cool! Let’s finish it!” Well, I suppose whether or not that’s how the lyrics came about matters less than the outcome, which is a brilliant tune!

While I could easily call out each of Aja’s seven tracks, I’d like to highlight two additional ones: Peg and Josie. Peg was the album’s lead single. It peaked at no. 11 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, making it the highest charting of the three singles released from the record. The tune features Michael McDonald, then the lead vocalist of The Doobie Brothers, on background vocals and Jay Graydon on lead guitar. I just love the groove of this tune – no need to over-analyze it!

Last but not least, there is Josie, the record’s closer and another highlight. As previously noted, it was also released separately as Aja’s third and last single. There are three features I like about this song in particular: the funky rhythm guitar, the very cool bass line and Becker’s guitar solo, one of only three solos he played on the album.

Aja became Steely Dan’s most commercially successful record, selling more than five million copies. It climbed all the way up to no. 3 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and to no. 5 in the U.K. I’m also glad Aja otherwise gained well-deserved recognition. It won a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical, at the 20th Annual Grammy Awards in February 1978. Moreover, it was ranked at no. 145 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In fact, if anything, I wonder why it didn’t come in higher, though the ranking probably matters less than being included in the list. Plus, there is of course a high degree of subjectivity in the first place when it comes to lists and rankings.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Rolling Stone, YouTube