My Playlist: Toto

Even though their sound is pretty commercial pop, which to many music aficionados are bad words, I’ve always liked Toto for their great sound and outstanding musicianship. Here’s the thing: Yes, there are plenty of examples of terrible commercial pop music – just look at what’s currently dominating the charts. But just because something is selling well doesn’t mean it’s bad. Like it or not, a widely beloved and my all-time favorite band The Beatles made commercial pop music, at least during their earlier years. Or take Michael Jackson’s Thriller album: It probably doesn’t get more commercial than that, yet it’s one of the best records ever released, at least in my humble opinion. And there are countless other examples.

Toto was founded in Los Angeles in 1976 by David Paich (keyboards, vocals) and Jeff Porcaro (drums, percussion), who had known each other from high school and done studio session work together. They recruited four additional members: Jeff’s brother Steve Porcaro (keyboards), Steve Lukather (guitar, lead and backing vocals), David Hungate (bass) and Bobby Kimball (lead and backing vocals). Like Paich and Jeff Porcaro, each of the additional members had worked with other artists. In fact, according to the official Toto website, the band’s members have performed on a total of 5,000 records that together sold half a billion copies. Obviously, this includes both projects that predated Toto and side engagements after the band’s formation – still, these are astonishing numbers!

Toto
Toto in 1978

Paich co-wrote half of the songs for Boz Scaggs’ seventh studio album Silk Degrees from March 1976. Steve Porcaro, Hungate and Lukather also worked with Scaggs. Following the formation of Toto, Lukather became one of the most sought after session guitarists. Perhaps his most famous engagement in this context is his guitar work on Michael Jackson’s Beat It from the Thriller album. Jeff Porcaro, who at the time was a 20-year-old drummer, played on all except one Steely Dan tunes on their fourth studio record Katy Lied from March 1975 – anyone who could live up to the perfectionism of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker must have been top notch! Last but not least, Kimball before joining Toto had been a vocalist in various New Orleans bands and S.S. Fools, an unsuccessful short-lived venture with three former members of Three Dog Night.

After signing with Columbia Records, Toto began work on their eponymous debut album. Paich wrote all except two tracks for the record that appeared in October 1978. Though music critics weren’t impressed with Toto initially, the band soon got a significant following. The record reached the top 10 on the albums charts in various countries, including Australia (no. 2), Sweden (no. 5), Germany (no. 8), Canada and the U.S. ( both no. 9) – not shabby for a debut! Toto have since released 12 additional studio albums, six live records and numerous compilations. Between June 2008 and February 2010, the band was on hiatus. Last June, they announced their latest greatest hits collection 40 Trips Around The Sun and a 2018 tour to celebrate their 40th anniversary. Let’s get to some music!

The first time I recall hearing the name Toto was in connection with the song Hold The Line. Written by Paich, it was the lead single and most successful tune from their first album and remains one of my favorite Toto songs. In particular, I dig the keyboard part and the guitar riff.

Next up: The title track of Toto’s excellent sophomore album Hydra. Credited to all members of the band, it’s a pretty complex tune with all kinds of breaks and changes in tempo that nicely showcase top notch musicianship. You simply don’t play this stuff without plenty of experience!

Toto IV from April 1982 became the band’s most successful album, topping the charts in Australia, Canada and the Netherlands, and reaching the top 10 in many other countries, including the U.S. and U.K. (both no. 4) and Japan (no. 3). It also generated what became the band’s only no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100: Africa. Toto IV turned out to be Kimball’s last record with the band at the time. He was told to leave two years later after drug use had taken a toll on his voice. However, he would be back for Mindfields, the band’s 10th studio album from 1999, and stay on for the two albums thereafter. Toto IV’s lead single Rosanna, written by Paich, is yet another example of musical complexity the band seems to pull off effortlessly.

Since I suppose no Toto playlist would be complete without it, here’s Africa, which was co-written by Paich and Jeff Porcaro. Paich is sharing lead vocals with Kimball. Former Poco and Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit is among the guest musicians on the track, providing backing vocals and acoustic rhythm guitar.

In 1986, Toto released their sixth studio album Fahrenheit, the first with Joseph Williams as lead vocalist. It was also the last to feature three Porcaros: Jeff, Steve and their brother Mike Porcaro, who had replaced Hungate on bass shortly after Toto IV had come out. After Fahrenheit’s release, Steve left to focus on songwriting and music composing. While he continued to work with the band in a supporting capacity, it wouldn’t be until Toto XIV that he would be listed again as a core member. Here’s I’ll Be Over You, co-written by Lukather and American songwriter Randy Goodrum. Sung by Lukather, it’s perhaps Toto’s nicest ballad. The tune also features Michael McDonald on backing vocals. It became Toto’s highest charting single in the U.S. since Kimball’s departure, climbing to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Toto’s seventh study record, ingeniously titled The Seventh One, came out in March 1988. It’s one of my favorite Toto albums and the last to feature Williams until their most recent studio record Toto XIV from 2015. Similar to Kimball, Williams was let go after his voice had been impacted by drug use. One almost wonders whether Toto makes their lead vocalists take drugs, fire them thereafter, and eventually ask them to come back! Here’s a nice rocker, Stay Away, featuring Linda Ronstadt on backing vocals and David Lindley on lap steel guitar.

By September 1992 when Kingdom Of Desire appeared, Toto had become a four-piece band, with Lukather performing all lead vocals. Their eighth studio album was also the last with Jeff Porcaro who passed away shortly after its release. Here’s the opener Gypsy Train, which like the majority of the record’s tracks is credited to the entire band. I hear a bit of an Aerosmith vibe in this one.

Tambu, released in May 1995 in Europe and in the U.S. the following month, is Toto’s ninth studio album and the first without Jeff Porcaro, who had been replaced by English drummer Simon Phillips. Similar to the band’s other members, Phillips had done plenty of session work. He also had been the drummer of The Who during their 1989 reunion tour in the U.S. Here’s The Turning Point, a groovy tune that’s credited to all members of the band plus Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Toto’s 10th studio record Mindfields appeared in Europe and the U.S. in March and November of 1999, respectively. Kimball’s return as a vocalist made Toto a five-piece band again. Here’s the title track, which is credited to all members of the band and features Kimball on lead vocals.

Since I’d like to keep playlists to no more than 10 songs while ideally spanning an artist’s recording career, I’m jumping to Toto’s most recent studio album, the previously noted Toto XIV. Released in March 2015, as mentioned above, the record once again featured Williams on lead vocals and Steve Porcaro as a core member. It also marked the return of original bassist Hungate; Mike Porcaro had been inactive since 2007 due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and sadly succumbed to complications just days before the album came out. Keith Carlock had replaced Phillips on drums, who had decided to leave Toto in January 2014 and focus on his solo career. Here’s the haunting Burn, a Paich/Williams co-write that also became the album’s third single.

Toto’s current official core members include Williams, Paich, Porcaro and Lukather. Three weeks ago, the band announced that Paich won’t be part of the North American leg of their 40th anniversary tour and instead will focus on his health that took a hit during his recent appearances with Toto in Europe. In the statement Paich said: “To say this was a difficult decision would be a complete understatement. I hope you will all be understanding of my need to be home. I look forward to joining the boys again on stage ASAP.” In the meantime, Dominique Xavier Talpin, who among others played with Prince, will sit in on keyboards.

The band’s North American tour kicked off in Vancouver on July 30. Tonight the band is playing in Costa Mesa, Calif. before it’s on to Henderson, NV on Friday. The current schedule lists 32 additional North American dates all the way until mid-November at what mostly look like small and mid-size venues. One, State Theatre of New Jersey in New Brunswick, is right in my neck of the woods. I got two tickets today – if only more top notch bands would be as reasonable when it comes to ticket prices!

Sources: Wikipedia, Toto official website, YouTube

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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

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

“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

Bringing to Life the Magic of Steely Dan

An evening with The Royal Scam at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, N.J.

To people who know me and readers of the blog, it won’t come as a big surprise that Steely Dan is one of my all-time favorite bands. The amazing writing and craftsmanship of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker created timeless music that is simply in a league of its own. While unfortunately I never got a chance to catch one of their shows, I probably came as close to it as possible last night at the Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, N.J. with The Royal Scam. It was actually the second time I saw this outstanding Steely Dan tribute band.

Named after Steely Dan’s fifth studio album from 1976, The Royal Scam have been faithfully playing the music of Fagen and Becker for 25 years. Lead vocalist Michael Caputo, who does a beautiful job of capturing Fagen’s smooth voice, told the audience they spent the first year with rehearsals before going on the road. This careful prep and the band’s long-time live experience clearly showed. Their attention to the details of the music was incredible, a true labor of love. Another Steely Dan fan who was sitting close to me and has actually seen them put it this way: “They are spot on.” I couldn’t have said it better!

The Royal Scam

The intimate setting of the Trumpets Jazz Club was a perfect venue to enjoy the music of Steely Dan up close, and there was plenty of it. Between two sets, each lasting more than 90 minutes, The Royal Scam played a great mix of Steely Dan classics like Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Reelin’ In the Years, Hey Nineteen and Deacon Blues, as well as some deeper cuts I wasn’t as familiar with.

Since smartphone videos oftentimes have mediocre sound quality, I didn’t try to take any footage last night. Fortunately, there are some nice clips of the band on YouTube. Following is a selection.

First Up: Hey Nineteen, from 1978’s Gaucho album. It appears this clip was captured during a gig a few months ago in Linden, N.J., where I saw The Royal Scam for the first time.

Here’s another tune from the same concert: Rikki Don’t Lose That Number from Pretzel Logic (1974), which became Steely Dan’s biggest hit climbing all the way to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1974.

The Aja album clearly is The Royal Scam’s favorite Steely Dan record, and who can blame them! They usually perform all or most of the tracks from this 1977 gem during their shows. Here is a very cool clip of the band playing side 1 of the album in its entirety: Black Cow, Aja and Deacon Blues!

Next up: Dirty Work from Steely Dan’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill – a stellar rendition of one of my favorite early tunes from Becker and Fagen.

And what could be a nicer last clip then more songs from Aja. In fact, how about all of side 2? Here it is, also taken from the band’s website: Peg, Home At Last, I Got The News and Josie.

In addition to Caputo, the band’s current line-up consists of Gino Amato (keyboards and synth programming), Don Regan (guitar), Keith Droz (drums), Larry Chavana (bass), Joe Montini (saxophone) and vocalists Carla Culkin and Wendi Gordy. The Royal Scam will be back at Trumpets on March 10, 2018. Their schedule of upcoming shows is here on the band’s website, along with news and other info.

After they had played their final song of the night, Do It Again from Can’t Buy A Thrill, Caputo thanked folks for coming out and supporting live music. He rightly pointed out that nowadays there are fewer and fewer places like Trumpets where people can enjoy great music up close. While I’ve been to many music events, typically, they haven’t been in an intimate setting. Last night was a great reminder that the music club experience is something that should be cherished.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Royal Scam website, YouTube

Note: This post was updated on November 19, 2017 with some new YouTube videos of the band to replace previous clips that are no longer available.

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 background vocals. 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

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