My Playlist: Steely Dan

Together with a handful of other bands and artists I’ve dug for many years, I couldn’t think of a better group to dedicate the first playlist of 2021 than to the amazing Steely Dan. While I’ve covered them on previous occasions, this is the first time I’ve put together a career-spanning playlist.

Before getting to some music, as usual, I’d like to provide a bit of background, for which I’m going to borrow from previous posts. The original masterminds behind Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Fagen was impressed with Becker’s guitar skills. They soon discovered they liked similar music and decided to write songs together. They also started playing together in various local bands.

The seeds for Steely Dan were sown in the summer of 1970, when Fagen and Becker responded to a Village Voice ad by guitarist Denny Dias, looking for a “bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops.” Becker was playing bass at the time and would switch to the electric guitar later. When they met Dias, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.

Donald Fagan & Walter Becker
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.

In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for each of the band’s following seven studio albums: Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1980).

Steely Dan: The Very Best Of | Music | Entertainment | Express.co.uk
Steely Dan in 1972 (from left): Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen and Jim Hodder

In June 1981, Fagen and Becker disbanded and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career.

In 1993, Fagen and Becker reunited for an American tour in support of Fagen’s second studio album Kamakiriad, which had appeared in May that year and had been produced by Becker. While Fagen and Becker continued Steely Dan tours, it took until February 2000 before their next new album Two Against Nature appeared. One more album followed: Everything Must Go from June 2003.

UPDATED] Walter Becker Estate Issues Statement Regarding Donald Fagen  Lawsuit
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

After the release of Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat in March 2006, Steely Dan resumed regular touring. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. On September 3, 2017, Becker passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 67.

At the time of Becker’s death, Donald Fagen said on his Facebook page, “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” And that’s exactly what he has been doing until COVID-19 hit. I was fortunate to see him twice in 2018 and wrote about it here and here. I’m currently scheduled to see him again open air in early July together with Steve Winwood – keeping fingers crossed. Time for some music!

I’d to kick things off with the aforementioned Dallas, Steely Dan’s first single. Like all tracks in this post, the song was co-written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Sung by drummer Jim Hodder, the county-flavored tune was not included on Steely Dan’s debut album but appeared in 1978 on a compilation titled Steely Dan.

Perhaps my favorite early Dan tune is the rocker Reelin’ In the Years, which first appeared on the band’s debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill from November 1972. It also became the album’s second single in March 1973. The song’s kickass guitar solo was played by session musician Elliott Randall, which none other than Jimmy Page called his favorite guitar solo of all time.

Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore release from July 1973, was the band’s first album without vocalist David Palmer that saw Donald Fagen sing lead on every tune. Here’s the album’s second single My Old School. While the record didn’t have a hit and couldn’t match the debut’s chart success, it was well received by critics at the time, and My Old School became a fan favorite.

Pretzel Logic, Dan’s third studio album released in February 1974, was the last to feature the full core lineup of Fagen, Becker, Dias, Baxter and Hodder. It also included contributions from many prominent LA musicians, such as future Toto members David Paich (piano, keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), then-Poco bassist and vocalist Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals) who would later join the Eagles, and session bassist Chuck Rainey. Here’s opener Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, which also became the lead single in April 1974.

By the time Steely Dan’s next album Katy Lied came out in March 1975, most of their original members had left. The band essentially became Becker and Fagen who continued to hire top-notch musicians to support their recording sessions. In addition to Paich and Porcaro, the latter included Rick Derringer and Michael McDonald. Katy Lied also became the first Dan album to feature amazing session guitarist Larry Carlton. Here’s Doctor Wu. The alto saxophone solo was played by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods.

Next up: Kid Charlemagne, the lead single from The Royal Scam, Steely Dan’s fifth studio album. Both appeared in May 1976. The funky tune features the above noted Larry Carlton whose guitar solo was ranked #80 in Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs in May 2008. I also dig Chuck Rainey’s bass work on that tune.

This brings me to Aja, which to me is Steely Dan’s Mount Rushmore. Released in September 1977, this album is pure perfection. While I could have selected any track, I simply couldn’t ignore my all-time favorite Dan tune: Deacon Blues. Even after having listened to it countless times, I still get excited about this song. I think it represents a perfect blend of jazz, pop and rock, and I love the smooth sound. BTW, Becker played bass on this one. But the real standout are the horns.

Steely Dan’s next album Gaucho from November 1980 proved to be a huge challenge to make, which ultimately resulted in the above breakup in June 1981. Driven by Fagen’s and Becker’s perfectionism, the recording sessions used at least 42 musicians and took more than a year. In January 1980, Becker’s girlfriend Karen Roberta Stanley died of a drug overdose at his home. Her family subsequently brought a $17.5 million lawsuit, charging he had introduced her to drugs. The case was settled out of court. Shortly after Stanley’s death, Becker was hit by a taxi shattering his right leg. During his six-month recovery, he and Fagen collaborated via phone. Here’s the album’s lead track Babylon Sisters.

February 2000 saw the release of Two Against Nature, Fagen’s and Becker’s first new Steely Dan studio album in 20 years since Gaucho. It became one of their most successful albums. In addition to earning a Platinum certification in the U.S., Two Against Nature won four Grammy Awards in 2001, including Album of the Year. Here’s the groovy Cousin Dupree, which won Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track of Steely Dan’s ninth studio album Everything Must Go, the final with Walter Becker, released in June 2003. I think Apple Music correctly notes the lyrics sound like the song is a permanent sign-off: Guess it’s time for us to book it/Talk about the famous road not taken/In the end we never took it/And if somewhere on the way/We good a few good licks in/No one’s ever gonna know/Cause we’re goin’ out of business/Everything must go.

If Everything Must Go indeed signaled Steely Dan’s final studio album, it wasn’t a total sign-off. Fagen and Becker continued to tour as Steely Dan almost every year thereafter until 2017. Becker’s final performance was on May 27 that year at the Greenwich Town Party in Greenwich, Conn.

Steely Dan have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001. In December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Steely Dan at No. 15 on its list of 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

Joe Jackson At State Theatre NJ: Looking Sharp And Still The Man

I almost would have missed Joe Jackson, just like my recent Who concert. Here’s to hoping that my apparent lack of music attention doesn’t become a trend, though it would probably not hurt my wallet! 🙂 Wait, what did I want to say? Right, the British artist who they called an “angry young man” when he broke through with his studio debut Look Sharp! in January 1979. While I don’t know whether Jackson was pissed then, he certainly doesn’t look angry to me these days! Instead, the man who once sang, “Everybody wants a happy ending,” comes across as feeling very comfortable in his skin and happy to still be making music people want to hear. I suppose that’s really all you can ask for as an artist!

By the time Jackson’s ongoing Four Decade Tour registered on my radar screen, all tickets I could afford seemed to be gone, and I just wasn’t willing to throw hundreds of bucks at some greedy reseller!  Then I received an email from State Theatre New Jersey, a nice midsize venue in New Brunswick, cheerfully announcing Jackson’s gig there. I thought, ‘what the hell,’ so checked out the situation one more time. And, voila, while there weren’t many seats left, I managed to get one without losing my blue shirt. Last night was showtime – and, yes, you probably already guessed it, after 40 years as a professional recording artist, Jackson continued to look sharp and proofed he’s definitely still the man!

“So, here comes a big tour,” Jackson said in an announcement last October. “We want to celebrate the fact that this is happening after 40 years – anything else, would be like sulking in a room by yourself on your own birthday party. Looking for some way to organize a show out of 40 years’ worth of material, I decided to draw on five albums, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (1979) Night And Day (1982) Laughter And Lust (1991) Rain (2008) and Fool (2019). We’ll also throw in a couple of songs from other albums and some new covers. I can’t wait. Let’s party.”

Joe Jackson and Band 2019
Joe Jackson and band (from left): Jackson, Graham Maby, Doug Yowell and Teddy Kumpel

And, boy, what a party it was! In addition to singing splendid lead vocals, Jackson played keyboards – something I read he typically didn’t do during past tours. If that’s true, it was certainly great he changed his mind this time. After all, he’s a true musician and multi-instrumentalist, who spent three years in his late teens and early twenties at London’s Royal Academy of Music, studying composition, piano and percussion. During that period, Jackson also learned jazz at the Academy and in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Apart from writing pop-oriented songs in genres like punk, new wave, rock, jazz and Latin, Jackson has also composed classical music. The question really becomes what the man has NOT done musically!

Once again the notion that great musicians tend to play with other great musicians turned out to be true. Jackson’s backing band was simply top-notch! The first guy I need to call out here is Graham Maby – and yes, I’m probably bassed, I mean biased. One of my favorite bassists, Maby still has a superb tone and a great sense for rhythmic and melodic basslines. Paul McCartney is who I wanna be when I grow up, but I’d also happily settle with Maby! 🙂 Jackson’s long-time friend and musical collaborator effectively drove the groove together with excellent drummer Doug Yowell, who by the way hails from New Jersey. They really breed musicians in the Garden State – just sayin’! Last but not least, Teddy Kumpel did an outstanding job on guitar. Man, what a fucking great band! Okay, I think it’s time to get to some music, shall we?

The set kicked off with Alchemy, the closer from Jackson’s great new album Fool,  released this January, and then launched right into the furious One More Time, the opener from his debut Look Sharp! – a cool 40-year jump back in time, not to mention style, and a nice illustration of the band’s versatility. I thought Kumpel’s guitar-playing shined in particular during the more rock-oriented tunes. Unfortunately, my smartphone outsmarted me at the wrong time, so I’m relying on another clip I found that cut off the beginning of Alchemy, but it still gives a good impression of the tune.

Jackson’s new album featured prominently in the show with three tracks, one of which (Alchemy) was repeated at the very end, providing nice bookends to the set. I have to say the new songs absolutely held up to his older, better known material. Here’s Fabulously Absolute, a rocker that was also released as a single. Stylistically, the tune isn’t that much different from Jackson’s first two albums. Whatever genre the man plays, he always has a great ear for catchy melodies, though he never aspired to become a pop star and never did – at least not in the traditional sense.

Next is a track from an album I don’t know well: Goin’ Downtown from Laughter And Lust,  released in April 1991. The tune is co-credited to Jackson and a British singer-songwriter named Drew Barfield.

My personal highlight of the evening was a medley of three songs: A cover of Rain by The Beatles, Invisible Man and It’s Different For Girls. Jackson announced it by saying they are now playing the title track from an album called Rain (January 2008). He dryly added no such track exists, so they borrowed it, deciding to change some of the chords. Invisible Man is the opener of Rain, a fantastic song I frankly had forgotten about, which reminds me a little bit of Steely Dan. Apparently, Jackson digs the Dan; in fact, later in the show, he covered King Of The World from Countdown To Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore album from July 1973. And then there’s It’s Different For Girls, featuring Jackson’s lyrics reversing the stereotypical roles of men and women when it comes to sex and love – one of two tunes he played from I’m The Man.

His sophomore release from October 1979 remains my favorite Joe Jackson album. In fact, it was my introduction to him when I received it as a birthday present in July 1980. I own the vinyl record to this day, and it’s still in perfect shape! Instead of relying on his band, Jackson treated the audience to a solo performance of It’s Different For Girls. Okay, nuff said! This is a long clip, and the video is sometimes out of focus, but, hey, it least it’s authentic! Plus, the sound is pretty decent and, most of all, the musicianship is just outstanding. What I’m trying to say in so many words is if you dig Jackson, you should watch the friggin’ clip!

Another Jackson tune I’ve always liked is You Can’t Get What You Want. It appeared on his March 1984 gem Body And Soul blending pop, jazz and Latin. Even though the horns from the studio version are “missing” and Jackson plays their fill-ins on keyboards instead, I think the band does a beautiful job capturing the tune. Check out Kumpel’s funky guitar, which is really cool!

The last track of the regular set was I’m The Man. The title track from Jackson’s sophomore album was another highlight of the evening, which once again showed this band can rock. Not surprisingly, it brought the audience up to their feet!

The regular set was followed by a three-track encore, starting with Jackson’s biggest hit: Steppin’ Out, from the Night And Day album released in June 1982. I’m not a fan of drum machines, and that aspect has always bothered me about an otherwise great tune; but I just couldn’t resist filming it, especially after Jackson noted they’re about to do something truly shocking – playing a song almost exactly the way it appears on an album! Jackson is known for altering studio tracks for live performances, which has frustrated some of his fans in the past – a fact he acknowledged during the announcement of the tune, teasingly adding he doesn’t quite get it, since it’s so much fun changing up songs.

Next a roadie walked out on stage, carrying a small box. It was the original drum machine Jackson had used for the recording. He proudly explained he got that drum machine in 1979, adding it’s pretty much impossible to get this gear nowadays. On Night And Day, Jackson played all of the instruments by himself, except for the drum snare, which doubled the drum machine’s snare, a natural task for Yowell. Jackson also explained the other instruments on the studio recording, including a Glockenspiel that last night was played by Maby. Of course, they also had the programmed synthesizer bassline – again, something else I’m less than fond of! Kumpel took over the organ part on the keyboards, while Jackson handled the electric piano. The following clip captures some of Jackson’s introductory explanations. If you’re bit of a music nerd like I am, this footage may be for you.

Joe Jackson is definitely worthwhile seeing, and I’m glad I finally did so! The ongoing second U.S. leg of the Four Decade Tour lasts until June 1. Some of the upcoming gigs include Miami (May 24), New Orleans (May 28), Houston (May 29) and Dallas (June 1). Afterwards, Jackson is returning to Europe, with shows in Germany, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy and Spain. The last date on the current schedule is Tel Aviv, Israel on July 28.

Sources: Wikipedia, Joe Jackson website, Setlist.fm, YouTube

Good Stuff Celebrates Great Music of Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting And Stevie Wonder

At first sight, Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder don’t seem to have many things in common. Of course, each are distinguished artists who became successful during an era when you could easily find great music, even on mainstream radio. Music that involved true craftsmanship. Music that had soul. Music that would grab you. Music that would want you to learn how to play an instrument yourself. At least, that’s what it did to me when I was in my young teens!

While I’m afraid the days when great music was part of the top 40 charts and all you really needed to do find it was switching on the radio are largely gone, there’s something very powerful about great music: It’s here to stay, in some cases even for more than 200 years, when you think about classical composers. And it should be celebrated. Enter Good Stuff, a unique tribute band to the above noted artists.

Mike Caputo
Mike Caputo, founder and lead vocalist of Good Stuff

As regular visitors of the blog know, I enjoy going to tribute shows and have done so quite frequently in recent years. This has included truly outstanding bands, and I’ve written about many of them in the past. Because of that my good blogger buddy Music Enthusiast has even jokingly called me The King of Tribute Bands. And why not? After all, there’s a king of pop, a king of rock & roll, a queen of soul, etc., so wouldn’t you agree it’s appropriate to have a king of tribute bands?😀

Most tribute acts I’ve seen focus on one particular artist or band. So when vocalist Mike Caputo, whom I’ve known for a couple of years, told me he was putting together a tribute band to celebrate the music of Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder, frankly, I was a bit skeptical at first. Steely Dan made total sense to me. Mike has been a singer, songwriter and musician for more than five decades. From his previous longtime tenure as lead vocalist of a Steely Dan tribute band, I knew he nails the voice of Donald Fagen. But adding three other artists to the mix? Well, it may not be a common concept, but Good Stuff surely pull it off beautifully. And once you listen to their setlist, you realize these songs really work well together.

Good Stuff 2
Good Stuff (clockwise): Mike Caputo, Don Regan, Axel Belohoubek, Deanna Carroll, Jay Dittamo, Scott Hogan, Phil Armeno and Linda Ferrano

Of course, it’s not only about selecting the “right” music from four different artists; it also takes great musicians to implement the concept. Which brings me to the band: Don Regan (guitar), Axel Belohoubek (keyboards), Deanna Carroll (vocals), Jay Dittamo (drums), Scott Hogan (bass), Phil Armeno (saxophones, flute) and Linda Ferrano (vocals). Linda is a recent addition to Good Stuff and alternates vocal duties with Deanna. All of these guys are professional musicians; most of them have been for more than three decades with impressive accomplishments.

For example, Alex’s credits include tour pre-production for Madonna and David Bowie. Phil was a touring backing musician for Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and The Duprees in the 70s. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley? Only the thought of playing with these rock & roll pioneers would give me acid reflux. And Phil is so moderate about it! Or take Jay. He has performed nationally and internationally with artists like The Les Paul Trio, Jose Feliciano and Keith Emerson (yep, that Keith of ELP). Scott, the youngest member of the band and a student of Don, has toured with pop group Hanson, Bernie Worrel Orchestra and The Shirelles, among others. In addition to Good Stuff, almost all members also play solo or in other bands. Not surprisingly, all this impressive experience shows!

Time to get to some music! Half of Good Stuff’s show features Steely Dan tunes. As such, the band appropriately selected a name that not only reflects the music they play but is also related to Steely Dan, or more precisely to Donald Fagen. Good Stuff is a Fagen tune from his fourth studio album Sunken Condos released in October 2012. The song I’d like to highlight here is My Old School. Co-written by Fagen and Walter Becker, the tune appeared on Steely Dan’s second studio album Countdown to Ecstasy from July 1973.

Gino Vannelli is the one artist in the mix I’m much less familiar with than the others. Among the handful of his tunes I know and dig is Brother To Brother, the title track of his sixth studio record from September 1978. It’s a jazzy and pretty complex tune, which I think measures up nicely to the Aja album, the gem in Steely Dan’s catalog.

Next up: Sting. Good Stuff has decided to focus on featuring material from the ex-Police man’s fourth solo effort: the excellent Ten Summoner’s Tales, which happens to be my favorite Sting album. Here’s Heavy Cloud No Rain. Like the majority of the album’s tracks, the tune was entirely written by Sting.

The last song I’d like to call out is Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing by Stevie Wonder. This great tune is from his 16th studio album Innervisions, which is widely considered to be one of the highlights of Wonder’s long catalog. He is one of my all-time favorite artists, and I would have loved to see him last year in Atlantic City during his short summer tour. But with ticket prices starting at $350, it was simply impossible.

It’s still relatively early days for Good Stuff. So far, they haven’t ventured beyond New Jersey. In fact, next Saturday, March 23, they will play Tim McLoone’s Supper Club, a great performance venue in Asbury Park, the hotbed of Jersey’s music scene. Mike told me he is starting to receive an increasing amount of queries from agents, including from out of state. As such, folks who do not reside in the Garden State may get a chance to see the band in the future. In case you’d like to further check them out, visit their website or Facebook page.

Sources: Wikipedia, Good Stuff website, YouTube

The Crimson Tide Sways The Beacon During Night Of The Expanding Man

Steely Dan shine with special performance of Aja album and other gems

Usually, I don’t see the same music act twice in just three months, even if I dig them. There are so many other artists on my list, plus ticket prices nowadays would simply make this unaffordable. But while I was still raving about a Steely Dan show I caught in July (see review here) I learned about their October residency at The Beacon Theatre in New York City. And when I noticed it would include a special performance of my all-time favorite Steely Dan album Aja, I immedeidately knew I wouldn’t want to miss it – especially after the summer gig had convinced me that Donald Fagen is still on top of his game contrary to some less than flattering reviews I had read. Finally, Thursday night, it was time for the expanding man, and what a night it was!

To start with, I had never been to The Beacon Theatre, even though I’m a longtime music fan and would have had plenty of opportunity for the past 20 years or so – I can’t quite explain why! When I mentioned it to my friendly seat neighbors and huge Steely Dan fans – a dad and his son who had come all the way from England to see this show and another special performance tonight of Donald Fagen’s first solo album The Nighfly, the dad jokingly said, ‘you must have been very busy.’

Beacon Theatre Interior

He certainly had a point. After all, this beautiful historic venue (pictured above) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side has featured many top-notch acts over the decades, perhaps most notably The Allman Brothers Band. For about two decades, the southern blues rockers had a residency there each spring. I actually recall that in ca. 1998, a former colleague and Brothers fan told he was going to see them there.

This brings me to another dark issue of my music past – gee, this starts feeling a bit like I’m writing a confession! At the time my former colleague told me about the above Brothers show, Ramblin’ Man was pretty much all I knew about the band. It really wasn’t until three years ago or so that I explored The Allman Brothers Band I greater depth and quickly became a fan – luckily in time to at least see them once in an unforgettable performance, though not at the Beacon but at PNC Bank Arts Center in Central New Jersey. Well, to both I say better late than never, plus you can’t change the past! On the show.

An excellent jazz trio featuring organ (Hammond), guitar and drums opened the night. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch their name. While I don’t mind listening to jazz, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. So how come I like Steely Dan you might ask? Well, because jazz is just one aspect of their music, albeit an important one, especially on Aja. Perhaps more importantly, music taste isn’t always rational. Regardless how I usually feel about jazz, these three guys really grabbed me. I guess Donald Fagen, who is known for being a perfectionist, likely wouldn’t approve of some amateurs to open his show, and amatuers these guys were definitely not! And that I can easily get mesmerized by the mighty sound of a Hammond also didn’t hurt. When that organ player held the keys in the vibrato setting and the air in the place started to pulsate, I just got goosebumps – I could have listened to him all night!

Steely Dan_Aja

Finally, the time has come to get to Steely Dan. The first half of their set was reserved for the Aja album, which the band performed in its entirety, following the order of the tracks on the studio recording. The remainder of the show featured select gems from other Dan records, one track from The Nightfly, as well as a couple of covers. The full set list is here. The song collection was really a treat for Steely Dan fans!

Released in September 1977 as their sixth studio album, Aja remains the crown jewel in Dan’s catalog, in my opinion. Like for most of their records, all tracks were written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Fagen and his top-notch band did an outstanding job capturing Aja’s rich sound in all of its glory. Following are a few clips. Light conditions proved to be challenging, and some of the footage is out of focus, but I’d be amiss not to include some of it – sue me if I write too long!

First up: My all-time favorite Steely Dan tune, which they didn’t play back in July.

…Learn to work the saxophone/I play just what I feel/Drink Scotch whiskey all night long/And die behind the wheel/They got a name for the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues…

Next is Home At Last. Love the groove of that song. Check out the mighty four-piece horn section and the beautful backing vocals by The Danettes – it’s just perfect!

And here is the album’s closer Josie. As a former bass player, I’ve always loved the cool bassline on that tune. You may need more than my crappy labtop speakers to fully hear it!

Following are a few clips from the concert’s second half. First up: The epic Hey Nineteen from Gaucho, Dan’s seventh studio album released in November 1980. It was their last effort before they disbanded in June 1981 and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. One of the highlights in the clip is the extended trombone solo by Jim Pugh that starts at about 4:08 minutes.

Here’s The Goodbye Look, the above mentioned track from The Nightfly, which became Donald Fagen’s acclaimed solo debut in October 1982. Like all the other tracks on the record except for one, the tune with a laid back Caribbean groove was written by Fagen.

And, since all things must pass, the last song I’d like to highlight is Reelin’ In The Years. I simply couldn’t skip this classic from Steely Dan’s November 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill, even though I also featured it my previous post about the July gig. I just love the great guitar work by Jon Herrington and the cool drum solo by Keith Carlock. These guys are just top-notch, demonstrating how great music can sound like! I think it’s also nice to see the traditionally reserved Fagen get animated after the end of the drum solo.

After repeatedly raving about the band, I’d like to acknowledge the members. As far as I could tell, the lineup was the same than during the aforementioned summer gig: Apart from Herrington, Carlock, Pugh and obviously Fagen, it included Freddie Washington (bass), Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), Michael Leonhart (trumpet) and The Danettes (backing vocals): La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell & Carolyn Leonhart.

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

In addition to the above noted show tonight, Steely Dan’s residency at The Beacon Theatre has six more dates: Oct 21: By Popular Demand: An Audience Request Night Determined By Fan Voting; Oct 24: Performing Countdown To Ecstasy Plus Select Hits; Oct 26: Performing Gaucho Plus Select Hits; Oct 27: Performing Aja Plus Select Hits (let’s pretend I didn’t see this!); Oct 29: Performing Nightfly And Select Hits; and Oct 30: Performing Greatest Hits. Afterwards, it appears Steely Dan is taking a break before resuming touring in the U.K. and Ireland in February 2019.

If you’re a fan and can make it, I’d say go and see them. And, did I mention it’s a great opportunity to visit one of New York’s iconic performance venues?

Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, Steely Dan website, YouTube

“Steely Don” Turns 70 And Is Feeling Great

Donald Fagen has no intention to retire anytime soon

I’m a huge Steely Dan fan. If anything, last year brought them closer to me than ever before and not just because of the untimely death of Walter Becker. I also attended a couple of shows of an excellent Steely Dan tribute band called Royal Scam. On Wednesday, Donald Fagen turned 70, so doing a post on the man felt right. Since I previously covered Steely Dan including their history here, I’d like to primarily focus on Fagen’s solo music.

But first a bit of history. Donald Jay Fagen was born in Passaic, N.J. on January 10, 1948. He grew up in South Brunswick, N.J. According to Wikipedia, he didn’t like the suburban setting, feeling it was trapping him like a prison. These sentiments and Fagen’s love of late-night radio were inspirations for his first solo album The Nightfly.

It’s fair to say Fagen’s life changed forever when he met Becker in 1967 when they were both students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Fagen was impressed with Becker’s guitar skills. They soon discovered they liked similar music and decided to write songs together. They also started playing together in various local bands.

Donald Fagan & Walter Becker

The seeds for Steely Dan were sown in the summer of 1970, when Fagen and Becker responded to a Village Voice ad by guitarist Denny Dias, looking for a bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops. Becker was playing the bass at the time and would switch to the electric guitar later.

Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals).  Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.

Between 1972 and 1980, Steely Dan released seven studio albums: Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972), Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1980). While I dig all of these records, to me the gem is Aja, which I previously covered here.

Following Steely Dan’s breakup in June 1981, Fagen started to work on his solo debut The Nightfly. Released in October 1982, this record remains the highlight of his solo catalog to date, in my opinion. It included various production staff and musicians who had been involved in Steely Dan records, for example producer Katz, bassist Anthony Jackson and lead guitarist Larry Carlton, something Fagen would continue on his future solo efforts. The opener I.G.Y., which according to Wikipedia stands for International Geophysical Year, “an international scientific project promoting collaboration among the world’s scientists.”

While it took Fagen 12 years to release his second solo album Kamakiriad in May 1993, he kept busy on other fronts, contributing to soundtracks and writing a column for Premiere magazine. He also worked together with Becker and Katz on Zazu, the 1986 debut album by American model and singer-songwriter Rosie Vela. In the early ’90s, he toured with The New York Rock and Soul Revue, a musical project directed by Fagen’s future wife Libby Titus. In addition to Becker, it included other prominent musicians, such as Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and blues singer Charles Brown.

Kamakiriad was produced by Becker. Revolving around the concept of a journey in a high-tech car, the album illustrates Fagen’s attraction to futuristic themes, similar to I.G.Y. Though oftentimes, one cannot be sure whether he means things seriously or is being ironic. Following the release, he reunited with Becker for a tour to support the album. While the record received a Grammy nomination and peaked at no. 10 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and at no. 3 on the UK Albums Chart, its commercial performance was poor. That’s a pity, since it’s actually a pretty good album. Here’s the opener Trans-Island Skyway – just love the groove of this tune!

Following his reunification with Becker, Fagen co-produced Becker’s 1994 solo debut 11 Tracks Of Whack. He also played keyboards on the album. In 2000, Fagen and Becker released Two Against Nature, their first studio album as Steely Dan in two decades. The follow-up Everything Must Go appeared in June 2003. It was Steely Dan’s last studio album.

In March 2006, Fagen released his third solo record Morph The Cat, in which Becker had no involvement. The record was generally well received and won a Grammy Award For Best Surround Sound Album. Here’s a clip of H Gang. The guitar work and the tenor sax solo by Steely Dan’s Jon Herrington and Walt Weiskopf, respectively absolutely shine.

Following the appearance of Morph The Cat, Steely Dan resumed regular touring. In June 2008, Becker’s second studio album Circus Money came out. Sunken Condos, Fagen’s fourth and most recent studio record, was released in October 2012. Another well-received album, Sunken Condos peaked at no. 12 on the Billboard 200. Here’s what’s probably my favorite tune from that album, Weather In My Head. Love the blues groove of that tune!

During an in-depth interview with Rolling Stone’s podcast Music Now last month, Fagen confirmed he wants to continue touring as long as possible. He added, “It keeps you young, for sure, touring. I noticed when I’m off, I don’t feel as good as when I’m on. I got to be either recording or touring. I especially enjoy live performing more than I used to. We have a fantastic band. I got a couple of fantastic bands. It’s just so much fun to be with these guys and to play.”

One of these bands is called The Nightflyers, four young musicians Fagen has worked with over the past few years. They are Connor Kennedy (guitar, vocals), Lee Falco (drums, vocals), Brandon Morrison (bass, vocals) and Will Bryant (keyboards, vocals). Here’s a clip of them performing the title track of The Nightfly album, captured during a concert in Cincinnati last year.

Last Saturday, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers announced a co-headlining 37-gig North American 2018 summer tour. It’s scheduled to kick off in Charlotte, N.C. on May 10 and conclude on July 14 in Bethel, N.Y. One of the shows (July 6) is right in my backyard at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Steely Dan and imaging them without Becker is still hard. The Doobies, which I also really dig, have had many changes in their lineup since their heyday in the ’70s. Still, I’m very tempted!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Steely Dan website; YouTube

In Memoriam of Walter Becker

Steely Dan co-founder dead at age 67

I’m still a bit in disbelief about the sad news of the untimely death of Walter Becker at age 67.  According to Rolling Stone, the passing of the Steely Dan co-founder was announced earlier today on his official website without providing any details. Uncut reported that Becker had a recent operation that prevented him from performing with the band at the Classic East and Classic West festivals in July in Los Angeles and New York, respectively – possibly an indication of a lingering health issue.

In early August, Becker’s Steely Dan compatriot Donald Fagen told Billboard that “Walter’s recovering from a procedure and hopefully he’ll be fine very soon.” He did not further elaborate. I imagine more details about the circumstances of Becker’s death are going to emerge over the next few days.

Becker was born in Queens, New York on February 20, 1950 and grew up in the city’s suburbs. He started getting into music by learning the saxophone before switching to the guitar. Becker ended up taking blues guitar lessons from his neighbor at the time, Randy Craig Wolfe, also known as Randy California. He was in good hands. Wolfe was an original member of rock band Spirit that was founded in 1967. The previous summer, he had played with Jimi Hendrix in his short-lived rock band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.

Walter Becker & Donald Fagen

In 1967, Becker and Fagen met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where they both studied at the time. They began to form Steely Dan in the summer of 1970. According to Wikipedia, the impetus was an ad in the Village Voice placed by guitarist Danny Dias, who was looking for a “bass player and keyboard player with jazz chops.” At that time, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.

Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.

In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for all of the band’s other ’70s albums. Unlike the initial single, the record became very successful. It reached Gold certification in August 1973. Eventually, in September 1993, Can’t Buy a Thrill was certified Platinum, after sales had reached one million copies. Here is a clip of the record’s great opener Do It Again, one of my favorite Steely Dan tunes.

Seven months after their debut, Steely Dan released Countdown to Ecstasy in July 1973. While Bodhisattva and My Old School became concert favorites among fans, the record didn’t generate a major hit single. That changed with Pretzel Logic, the band’s third studio album, which appeared in February 1974 and featured Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Also released separately in April 1974, the tune became Steely Dan’s most successful single, reaching no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1974.

In March 1975, Steely Dan’s fourth album Katy Lied appeared. By that time, most of the band’s original members had left, and Steely Dan essentially became Becker and Fagen who hired additional musicians as needed. Katy Lied reached Gold certification. Lead single Black Friday charted at no. 37. Notable guest musicians on the record included future Toto members David Paich (keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), as well as Michael McDonald on backing vocals. The Royal Scam followed in May 1976, another gold record for Steely Dan. Lead single Kid Charlemagne charted at no. 82 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In September 1977, Steely Dan released their sixth studio album Aja, the band’s best-selling record and my Steely Dan favorite. It peaked at no. 3 and no. 5 on the U.S. and U.K. charts, respectively, and became Steely Dan’s first platinum record. Ultimately, the album sold more than five million copies. It generated three singles, Peg, Deacon Blues and Josie. Here is a clip of my favorite one, Deacon Blues.

Gaucho, which came out in November 1980, was Steely Dan’s last studio release before they disbanded in June 1981 and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career. While the recording of Gaucho was impacted by various personal and professional challenges, the album was mostly well received, peaking at no. 9 on the U.S. album chart and reaching Platinum certification. The record includes the classic Hey Nineteen, which became the lead single climbing to no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Between 1981 and 1993, Becker produced records for various artists, including Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks and Fra Lippo Lippi. He also became involved with the band China Crisis. Becker is listed a member of the band on their third studio album Flaunt the Imperfection. While Fagen and Becker had a couple of one-off collaborations in-between, they resumed their official partnership in 1993 when they toured as Steely Dan for the first time in 13 years.

Becker also produced Fagan’s second solo album Kamakiriad, which appeared in May 1993. In turn, Fagan became the co-producer of Becker’s 1994 solo debut 11 Tracks of Whack. Here is a clip of one of the record’s tunes, Lucky Henry, which features some great guitar work.

While Becker and Fagan continued Steely Dan tours, it took them until 2000 before they released a new album, Two Against Nature. It was a successful recording comeback, peaking at no. 6 on the Billboard 200, and scoring four Grammy awards and Platinum certification in the U.S. One of the Grammy awards was the record’s lead single Cousin Dupree, which won Best Performance by a Pop Duo or Group with Vocal.

The final Steely Dan studio album Everything Must Go appeared in June 2003. While the record received mixed reviews, it reached no. 9 on the Billboard 200. Here is a clip of the title track.

Following the album’s release, Steely Dan continued to tour frequently. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. Becker’s second and final such record Circus Money appeared in June 2008. Here’s a clip of Bob Is Not Your Uncle Anymore, a tune with a nice reggae groove.

Following are excerpts from a statement Fagen posted on his Facebook page about his long-time music partner: “Walter Becker was my friend, my writing partner and my bandmate since we met as students at Bard College in 1967…We liked a lot of the same things: jazz (from the twenties through the mid-sixties), W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, science fiction, Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Berger, and Robert Altman films come to mind. Also soul music and Chicago blues…[Becker] was smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist and a great songwriter. He was cynical about human nature, including his own, and hysterically funny…I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”

Sources: Rolling Stone, Uncut, Billboard, Wikipedia, Donald Fagen Facebook page, YouTube