Reelin’ In The Years At PNC Bank Arts Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Happy Sunday! After another busy week on other fronts, I’m ready to time-travel to explore different flavors of the music world. Hope you’ll join me!

The Horace Silver Quartet/Serenade to a Soul Sister

Today’s journey starts in June 1968. This month saw some notable new music releases by artists like Aretha Franklin (Aretha Now), Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida) and Pink Floyd (A Saucerful of Secrets). And Serenade to a Soul Sister, a studio album by The Horace Silver Quartet. The group was formed in 1956 by jazz pianist Horace Silver after he had left The Jazz Messengers which had co-founded with drummer Art Blakey in the early 1950s. The Horace Silver Quartet became Silver’s long-term combo he led into the ’80s. He continued to release albums until 1998. In 2007 and passed away in June 2014 at the age of 85. Here’s the groovy title track of the aforementioned record, composed by Silver. He was backed by Charles Tolliver (trumpet), Stanley Turrentine (tenor saxophone), Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Mickey Roker (drums).

Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs/Maggie Mae

Ever since I first listened to power pop artist Matthew Sweet’s collaborations with Susanna Hoffs, who is best-known as a co-founder of The Bangles, I was hooked by how well their vocals blend in their covers of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s songs. Here’s their version of Rod Stewart classic Maggie Mae, which Stewart co-wrote with Martin Quittenton and recorded for his studio album Every Picture Tells a Story. Sweet and Hoffs included the tune on Under the Covers, Vol. 2, their second of three collaborative efforts that appeared in July 2009. The album featured covers of ’70s songs. From a vocal perspective, admittedly, there are perhaps more compelling examples of the Sweet/Hoffs harmony singing, but I just love that Rod Stewart tune!

Leon Russell/A Song For You

Our next stop takes us to March 1970 and the solo debut album by Leon Russell. Over a 60-year career that started as a 14-year-old in 1956, Russell proved to be a versatile artist spanning multiple genres, including rock & roll, country, gospel, bluegrass, R&B, southern rock, blues rock, folk, surf and Tulsa Sound. A Song For You from his eponymous solo debut album that came out in March 1970 is one of his best-known compositions. It’s probably not a coincidence the soulful ballad is Russell’s most popular song on Spotify. In addition to singing and playing the piano, he also provided the tune’s tenor horn part. The album featured multiple notable guests, including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and most members of The Rolling Stones.

Sting/The Soul Cages

Ever since my wife and I recently considered seeing Sting who is currently on the road, the ex-Police frontman has been on my mind. I was going to pick a track off Ten Summoner’s Tales, my favorite solo album by the British artist but then decided to select the title track from predecessor The Soul Cages. Sting’s third full-length solo effort from January 1991 was a concept album focused on the death of his father. It helped him overcome a prolonged period of writer’s block he had developed after his dad’s passing in 1987. I always dug the rock vibe of the title track, which also yielded Sting his first Grammy award in 1992, for Best Rock Song.

Bruce Hornsby and The Range/Mandolin Rain

During a recent interview, Bonnie Raitt revealed that Bruce Hornsby is her favorite artist, citing his versatility if I recall it correctly. I guess this planted a bug in my brain to feature a track from the album that brought Hornsby on my radar screen in April 1986: The Way It Is, the first with The Range, his backing band during his early recording career. And what a debut it was it was for the singer-songwriter and pianist who had been active since 1974. Led by the huge success of the title track, The Way It Is achieved multi-Platinum status and helped the band the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1987. I pretty much love every tune on that album. Here’s the beautiful Mandolin Rain, co-written by Bruce Hornsby and his brother John Hornsby.

Quaker City Night Hawks/Suit in the Back

And once again, we’ve reached the final stop of our little music excursion. In the past, I’ve repeatedly recognized examples of great music suggestions Apple Music had served up. This time the credit needs to go to Spotify. That streaming platform has what I find is an interesting feature where once you’ve listened to all songs in a playlist you created they continue playing music, selecting tunes they feel fit with your playlist. And that’s exactly how I came across this tune, Suit in the Back, by Quaker City Night Hawks. I had never heard of the Texas band combing southern rock, country and blues, who released their debut ¡Torquila Torquila! in May 2011. Suit in the Back, written by the band’s vocalist, songwriter and guitarist Sam Anderson, is from their most recent album QCNH released in March 2019. Quaker City Night Hawks, who also include David Matsler (vocals, guitar) and Aaron Haynes (drums), certainly look like a band worthwhile to further out.

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist featuring the above tune. Hope you enjoyed this Sunday’s mini-trip.

Sources: Wikipedia; Quaker City Night Hawks website; YouTube; Spotify

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another installment of The Sunday Six where I’d like to present six songs from the past six decades or so. The rules are there are no rules, and pretty much any music genre goes, as long as I like the track. I suppose this means the outcomes may vary. At the end of the day, my goal is to celebrate great music, which can come in many different flavors.

Kenny Burrell/Saturday Night Blues

I’d like to start today’s mini-journey with a great bluesy jazz instrumental by American jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. Burrell started picking up the guitar in 1943 as a 12-year-old. Among his influences were jazz guitarists Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore and Django Reinhardt. Burrell’s recording debut occurred in 1951 with Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet while he was a student at Wayne State University. The first album he recorded under his own name was Introducing Kenny Burrell, released in September 1956. Subsequently, an enormous amount of additional records appeared, both featuring Burrell as a leader, as well as a sideman to many other jazz artists, especially organist Jimmy Smith. Saturday Night Blues is from Midnight Blue, a Burrell album from May 1963. Other musicians on the recording include Stanley Turrentine (tenor saxophone), Major Holley (bass), Ray Barretto (conga) and Bill English (drums). This tune may be called Saturday Night Blues, but for me, it works just as well for a Sunday morning!

Robert Palmer/Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley

British songwriter and vocalist Robert Palmer joined his first band The Mandrakes in 1964 as a 15-year-old high school student. After playing in two other groups, he co-founded soul/rock band Vinegar Joe in 1971. Follwing three albums, the group disbanded in 1974, and Palmer launched a solo career. In 1984, he formed English-American supergroup The Power Station, together with Duran Duran members Andy Taylor (guitar) and John Taylor (bass), as well as former Chic drummer Tony Thompson. The following year, Palmer left the group that subsequently disbanded to record his next solo album, the highly successful Riptide. It featured the single Addicted to Love, which became a no. 1 in the U.S. and Australia, as well as a top 5 hit in the UK, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand. Palmer recorded six additional solo albums and one 1996 reunion album with The Power Station. He died from a sudden heart attack in Paris in September 2003. Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, written by Allen Toussaint, is the groovy title track from Palmer’s debut solo album that came out in September 1974.

Tracy Chapman/Give Me One Reason

For this next pick, let’s jump to the ’90s and a great tune by Tracy Chapman I recall the song somewhat surprised me coming from her at the time it appeared. The singer-songwriter from Cleveland, Ohio burst on the scene in April 1988 with her eponymous folk-oriented debut album. Her singles Talkin’ ‘about a Revolution and especially Fast Car struck a chord with many listeners, including this blogger. Chapman has since released seven additional studio albums and two compilations. According to this website, Chapman is still in the music business but not really active lately. From a 2015 interview: “Being in the public eye and under the glare of the spotlight was, and it still is, to some extent, uncomfortable for me, but there are some ways by which everything that has happened in my life has prepared me for this career. That has made me perhaps not the ideal person for this job.” I certainly hope we’ll hear more from Tracy Chapman. For now, let’s listen to Give Me One Reason, a terrific blues tune penned by Chapman. It appeared on her fourth studio album New Beginning from November 1995.

Meat Loaf/Dead Ringer for Love

As widely reported, Meat Loaf passed away during the night of January 20 to January 21. While it’s safe to assume his operatic, heavily produced output isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, many people bought his music. How many? How about 65 million-plus records sold worldwide! Meat Loaf whose real name was Michael Lee Aday was rock opera on steroids. His bombastic productions were somewhat comparable to Queen and ELO. Altogether, the Texan released a dozen studio albums between October 1977 (Bat Out of Hell) and September 2016 (Braver Than We Are). Aday struggled with health issues, including severe back problems, which largely sidelined him since the mid-2010s. I recall reading somewhere last year that he was working on new music. Here’s one of my favorite Meat Loaf songs: Dead Ringer for Love from his sophomore album Dead Ringer that appeared in September 1981. Written by Aday’s longtime songwriter Jim Steinman, who passed away in April of last year at the age of 73, the tune features Cher on vocals. Hot patootie, bless your soul, I really loved your rock & roll!

Lenny Kravitz/The Chamber

I trust most readers have heard of American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and actor Lenny Kravitz. Following challenges in his early career, where some clever music industry officials told him he didn’t sound “black enough” (what does this even mean?!) while others opined his music embraced too many influences of terrible artists like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles (you just can’t make this stuff up!), Kravitz has established himself with more than 40 million records sold worldwide and multiple awards. I think these smartass industry folks have since shut up. Here’s a cool groovy tune called The Chamber from Kravitz’s 10th studio album Strut released in September 2014. It was co-written by Kravitz and Craig Ross, who also played guitar and handclaps on the album. The song had first appeared in June that year as the lead single. Be careful, boys and girls, the video may harm you. And, Lenny, how could you, that bass groove sounds way too much like Chic!

Parquet Courts/Watching Strangers Smile

And once again this brings me to the sixth and final pick for this installment, a tune by Parquet Courts. ‘Who?’ you might think? I kind of had a similar initial reaction when I stumbled upon this New York City-based rock band, founded in 2010 by then-University of North Texas students Andrew Savage (vocals, guitar) and Austin Brown (vocals, guitar, keyboard). Sean Yeaton (bass, backing and lead vocals) and Max Savage (drums, percussion, backing vocals) completed the line-up, which remains in place to this day. Wikipedia notes the group’s music has been characterized as indie rock, post-punk, art punk and garage punk. To date, Parquet Courts have released eight studio albums. Here’s what appears to be their most recent tune, Watching Strangers Smile, a non-album single that came out on January 12 this year. I think it sounds pretty cool – check it out!

Here’s a Spotify playlist featuring all of the above picks. Hope you find something that’s for you.

Sources: Wikipedia; About Tracy Chapman website; YouTube; Spotify