I fully expect Toto is going to elicit different reactions from readers, ranging from excellent to rather mediocre. Let there be no doubt where I stand: While like every band some of Toto’s songs were more compelling than others, overall, I really dig these guys for their outstanding musicianship and, yes, many of their catchy and well executed pop-rock tunes. The Seventh One from March 1988 is probably my favorite album.
My initial introduction to Toto was Hold the Line, a track from their eponymous debut album from October 1978. It was included on a compilation titled The Rock Album – The Best of Today’s Rock Music, which came out in 1980. A friend gave it to me as a present on music cassette. Then came Toto IV from April 1982, and songs like Rosanna, Africa and I Won’t Hold You Back, which each received extensive radio play in Germany. I was hooked!
Toto’s next two albums, Isolation and Fahrenheit from October 1984 and August 1986, respectively, didn’t excite me as much. As a result, the band started fading a bit from my radar screen. And then The Seventh One was released. I dug this album right from the get-go.
Since Toto IV, the band’s line-up had changed. Lead vocalist Bobby Kimball and bassist David Hungate, who were both part of Toto’s initial members, had been replaced by Joseph Williams and Mike Porcaro, respectively. But frankly, I don’t feel this impacted the quality of the album at all. Let’s get to some music!
I’d like to kick it off with the opener Pamela, co-written by David Paich (keyboards, backing vocals) and Joseph Williams. The tune was also released separately as the lead single in February 1988 ahead of the album. Apart from its catchy melody, I dig Jeff Pocaro’s drums part in particular including the cool breaks. To me, Pocaro was one of the best drummers in rock and pop. Of course, the caveat here is I don’t play the drums myself. But I suppose if you were good enough to pass the audition for perfectionists Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, you must have been a bloody good drummer! Not to mention countless other top-notch artists like Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few.
Here’s a tune guitarist Steve Lukather considers to be one of his best compositions: Anna. He co-wrote the ballad with Randy Goodrum, an American songwriter, pianist and producer. In August 1988, it also became the album’s third single.
Stop Loving You with its upbeat groove just is an infectious pop song. Co-written by Lukather and Paich, the track also appeared as the album’s fourth single. While it did well in Europe, hitting no. 2 in each The Netherlands and Belgium and reaching no. 37 in Italy, it didn’t chart in the U.S. Here’s the official video.
Ready for some rock? How about that and with a little help from Linda Ronstadt on vocals and some smoking lap steel guitar by David Lindley? Here’s Stay Away, another Paich-Lukather co-write. Perhaps, they should have released that one as a single!
And since it’s so much fun, how about another pop rocker: Only the Children, co-written by Paich, Lukather and Williams.
Let’s end things on a quieter note with another ballad: A Thousand Years. I actually would have bet that Lukather had a role in writing the tune. But nope, it was co-written by Williams, Paich and Mark Towner Williams.
While Toto and Columbia Records were confident The Seventh One was one of the band’s strongest albums to date, its chart performance remained far below expectations. In part, Wikipedia attributes this to upheaval at the record company with president Al Teller’s departure right in the wake of Pamela’s release. Apparently, this led to waning promotion of the song that ended up stalling at no. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 – not exactly terrible, but certainly a huge difference to Africa and Rosanna, which had peaked at no. 1 and no. 2 in the U.S., respectively. Of course, chart performance is a double-edged indicator to begin with. Just look at today’s charts!
Not a day goes by that you don’t see stories on TV and in other news outlets, reporting about the incredible work healthcare professionals are doing around the U.S. to care for people who are sick from the coronavirus. Last night, I caught a segment on CNN, which really got to me. For a change, I wished it was fake news, but it wasn’t!
A CNN anchor interviewed two women who are working as hospital nurses in New York City: A 20-year-old and another nurse who I guess was in her ’50s – hard to tell! Both looked extremely exhausted. The older nurse was working despite having some COVID-19 symptoms herself. Why was she still coming to work? ‘Because that’s what we do,’ she said. In the beginning, the 20-year-old tried to put on an optimistic face as best as she could, but it was obvious she was scared to death. She had just written her will and admitted she had cried a lot over the past week.
Twenty years old and feeling compelled to write her will? That’s only two years older than my son! And this is happening in America in the 21st century?
Both women pleaded with government officials that healthcare workers be provided with the protective equipment they need to continue caring for patients while reducing the risk of getting sick themselves. I have to say I never thought I would witness something like this in the U.S., one of the richest countries in the world. WTF!
It’s beyond my comprehension why certain so-called leaders at the state and federal level don’t use their full authorities to help contain the spread of the virus and fight it with all means they have at their disposal. This is not a time to question scientists or view things through an ideological lens. People are dying all around us, for crying out loud!
I’ll stop the rant here to get to the essence of the post – music, more specifically songs that in a broader sense are about doctors. Admittedly, I have to stress the word “broader” here. In any case, the idea is to give a shoutout and honor the selfless work healthcare professionals are doing across the U.S. every day. Typically for lousy pay!
Steely Dan/Dr. Wu – Donald Fagen & Walter Becker; Katy Lied (1975)
Bruce Springsteen/The Lady and the Doctor – Bruce Springstein; Before the Fame (1997)
Jethro Tull/Doctor to My Disease – Ian Anderson; Catfish Rising (1991)
Robert Palmer/Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor) – Moon Martin; Secrets (1979)
Jackson Browne/Doctor, My Eyes – Jackson Browne; Jackson Browne (1972)
Blue Öyster Cult/Dr. Music – Joe Bouchard, Donald Roeser & Richard Meltzer; Mirrors (1979)
Counting Crows/Hospital – Coby Brown; Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation) (2012)
Doobie Brothers/The Doctor – Tom Johnston, Charlie Midnight & Eddie Schwartz; Cycles (1989)
Black Sabbath/Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor – Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward & Ozzy Osbourne; Technical Ecstasy (1976)
The Fray/How to Save a Life – Isaac Slade & Joe King; How to Safe a Life (2005)
The other day, I found myself listening to Donald Fagen’s excellent solo debut album The Nightfly. More frequent visitors of the blog know I dig Steely Dan big time, so one wonders what took me so long to write about this record released in October 1982. Well, to my defense, I included The Nightfly in a previous post about Fagen’s 70th birthday in January 2018 but haven’t dedicated an entire piece to this gem. Until now.
In many ways, The Nightfly mirrors previous Steely Dan albums. To start with, the producer was Gary Katz, who also had produced all of the Dan’s seven records that had appeared by then. Driven by Fagen’s and Katz’s perfectionism and some technical challenges, The Nightfly took eight months to record, about on par with the Aja album, though shorter than Gaucho, Steely Dan’s final album prior to their 20-year recording hiatus. Like previous Steely Dan records, The Nightfly featured an army of top-notch session musicians. Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jeff Porcaro (drums), Rick Derringer (guitar) and many other of these guys had played on Steely Dan albums.
But one musician was absent: Fagen’s long-time collaborator Walter Becker. While initially, Fagen thought he could easily handle the song-writing by himself, there came a point when he began to struggle. After the album’s release, he developed a full-blown writer’s block. It would take more than 11 years for his second solo album Kamakiriad to come out. That record was produced by Becker and was the first time he and Fagen collaborated since their breakup in 1981. Another key difference compared to Steely Dan albums were the largely autobiographical lyrics. Many of the songs incorporated topics from Fagen’s childhood in suburban New Jersey. Unlike most Steely Dan albums that were recorded live, for The Nightfly, Fagen opted to overdub each part separately.
Let’s get to some music. I was going to skip the excellent opener I.G.Y., since it was included in my above-mentioned post on Fagen’s 70th birthday. But as one of the album’s standouts, I simply couldn’t resist. I.G.Y, which stands for International Geophysical Year, captures America’s widespread optimistic vision about the country’s future in the late 1950s. The song includes concepts like undersea rail, solar-powered cities and public space travel – and a good dose of sarcasm. I.G.Y. also became the album’s lead single. It peaked at no. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is Donald Fagen’s only solo top 40 single on that chart.
According to Wikipedia, the title of the next song Green Flower Street was inspired by the jazz standard On Green Dolphin Street. During his childhood, Fagen became a huge jazz fan. It’s no coincidence that the album’s cover pictures him as a radio DJ with a turntable and a copy of 1958 jazz album Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders.
Ruby Baby is the only cover on the album. Co-written by music songwriting machine Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the tune was first recorded by The Drifters in 1956. Fagen’s take is jazzier than the original doo-wop version. It also was released as the record’s third and final single.
Another great tune is New Frontier. The title was taken from a quote by John F. Kennedy, who said during his acceptance speech for the Presidential nomination in 1960: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.” The lyrics are about teenage romance, which prompted a Wall Street Journal reporter to speculate the title may be a humorous metaphor to sex and adulthood. Here’s the song’s official video clip, which combines animation and live action, and is considered an early classic played on MTV. The tune also appeared separately as a single.
I’m Lester the Nightfly Hello Baton Rouge Won’t you turn your radio down Respect the seven second delay we use
This is the first verse from the album’s title track, which captures Fagen’s fascination with jazz during his teenage years and his dream to become a late-night radio DJ. It’s the final tune I’d like to call out.
During a British radio segment about The Nightfly, which apparently aired around the time of Fagen’s 70’s birthday and featured archive interview soundbites of him from 1982, he commented: “I guess I’m 34 now, and I started to think back about how I came to be a musician. And in exploring that, I started thinking about the late ’50s and early ’60s when I first started listening to jazz and rhythm and blues and that kind of music. And that’s the kind of music that formed a lot of my attitudes at the time, not only the music but the whole culture connected with jazz and late-night radio and hipster culture and all those things, which I thought of as an alternative to the rather bland life I was leading out in the suburbs near New York City. So that theme runs through most all of the songs in the album.”
The Nightfly was not only a standout musically, but also technologically. It is one of the earliest fully digitally recorded albums. In fact, it brought to a successful conclusion Fagen’s and Katz’s previous experimentation with digital recording on Steely Dan’sGaucho, which ended up being an analog record. But it wasn’t an easy feat and led to various challenges with the digital recording machines. In a 1983 story by Billboard magazine, Fagen said, “I was ready to transfer to analog and give it up on several occasions, but my engineering staff kept talking me into it.”
The album was positively received by music critics. It was also nominated for seven Grammy Awards in 1983. While performing worse commercially than Dan’s Gaucho, The Nightfly still was certified platinum in the U.S. and the UK. It climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard 200, making it Fagen’s second-best chart performing solo album after Kamakiriad, which peaked at no. 10 on that chart.
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Billboard Magazine; YouTube
In July 2017, I introduced The Venues, a category featuring famous concert halls, such as The Apollo Theatre and well known TV music programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. For some reason, the category fell off the bandwagon after the third post in November that year – not quite sure why. In any case, I felt the time was right for another installment. One of the venues that came to my mind immediately is the Beacon Theatre in New York City, in part because the beautiful historic theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is associated with two of my favorite bands: The Allman Brothers Band and Steely Dan, which both had frequent annual residencies there. The Dan still does! But first things first – a bit of history.
The Beacon Theatre opened as the Warner’s Beacon Theatre on December 24, 1929. It was designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager as a venue for silent films. But when the original owners financially collapsed, Warner Theatres acquired the theater to be a first-run showcase for Warner Bros. films on the Upper West Side. By that time, the movie genre of silent films had already become obsolete. The Beacon, which subsequently was operated by Brandt Theaters, remained a movie theater over next few decades. It would take until 1974, when Steven Singer became the first owner who turned the Beacon into a venue for live music.
Fortunately, an effort in 1987 to convert the theater into a night club was blocked in court, given its historic and protected architecture. In 1982, it had been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Through the ’80s and ’90s, the Beacon Theatre continued to fill a spot in the midsize category venue in New York between the larger Radio City Music Hall and various smaller clubs and ballrooms. In 2006, sports and entertainment holding company The Madison Square Garden Company started operating the Beacon. In November that same year, the theater began a 20-year lease by Cablevision, which also leases Radio City Music Hall and owns Madison Square Garden.
Between the second half of 2008 and early 2009, the theater underwent a complete renovation. As reported by The New York Times, the work involved about 1,000 workers, lasted seven months and cost $16 million. The result can be seen in the above photo and is certainly stunning. I was fortunate to experience the mighty venue myself when I saw Steely Dan there in October 2018.
In addition to pop and rock concerts, the Beacon Theatre has hosted political debates, gospel choirs, comedians and many dramatic productions. The 2008 Martin Scorsese picture Shine a Light, which captured The Rolling Stones live in concert, was filmed there. In January 2016, Joan Baez celebrated her 75th birthday with a show at the Beacon. She also played the venue in May this year as part of her now completed 2018/2019 Fare Thee Well Tour. Time for some music that was performed at the Beacon.
Let’s kick things off with the Grateful Dead, who performed two shows at the theater on June 14 and 15, 1976. Apparently, the following footage of Not Fade Away was captured during a soundcheck there, not one of the actual concerts but, hey, close enough! Plus, it’s a fun clip to watch. Not Fade Away was written by Charles Hardin, a.k.a. Buddy Holly. His producer Norman Petty received a co-credit. The tune was first released as a single in October 1957. It was also included on Holly’s debut album The “Chirping” Crickets, released in November of the same year.
Next up: The Black Crowes and Remedy. Co-written by lead vocalist Chris Robinson and his brother and rhythm guitarist Rich Robinson, the tune appeared on the band’s sophomore album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion from May 1992. The footage is from late August 1992 when TheBlack Crowes played a series of four shows at the Beacon.
James Taylor is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. One tune I dig in particular is Fire And Rain. He recorded it for his second studio album Sweet Baby James, which was released in February 1970. The song also came out separately as a single and became Taylor’s first hit, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. This clip was captured during a show on May 30, 1998.
Here are The Rolling Stones with Jumpin’ Jack Flash from the aforementioned Martin Scorsese concert film. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the tune was released as a single in May 1968. The film includes footage from two shows the Stones played at the Beacon. This performance is from their second night there on November 1, 2006.
Starting from 1998, The Allman Brothers Band played spring residencies at the Beacon for 19 years in a row except for 2010 when the theater wasn’t available. This performance of Dreams is from their March 2013 series of gigs. The Gregg Allman song first appeared on the band’s eponymous debut album from November 1969.
On April 1 and 2, 2016, Bonnie Raitt played the Beacon Theatre as part of her extended Dig In Deep Tour, named after her most recent studio album from February 2016. I caught her during that tour in August 2016, which thus far was the first only time. Her gig at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark remains one of the best shows I’ve seen. Co-written by Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick, Gypsy In Me is one of the tracks from Dig In Deep. Not only is Raitt a superb guitarist and great vocalist, but she also is as genuine as it can get. There is no BS with this lady. What you get is what you see!
From The Allman Brothers Band it wasn’t a big leap to former member Derek Trucks, his wife Susan Tedeschi and the group they formed in 2010: Tedeschi Trucks Band. My knowledge of their music is fairly limited, and I definitely want to explore them more closely. Here’s their take of Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, another great tune written by Gregg Allman. It first appeared on the Allmans’ third studio album Eat A Peach from February 1972, long before Trucks joined them in 1999. The song was also released separately as a single in April that year. This clip was captured on October 11, 2017 during what looks like a six-date residency the band did at the Beacon that year.
The last and most recent clip I’d like to feature is footage of Steely Dan from their 2018 U.S. tour, which ended with a seven-date residency at the Beacon. Of course, I couldn’t leave out the Dan! This performance of Pretzel Logic was from their final gig on October 30. Co-written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Pretzel Logic is the title track of Steely Dan’s third studio album that appeared in February 1974.
Until last year when I saw them twice, which included the Beacon for an October 20 show dedicated to my favorite album Aja, I had never seen Steely Dan. Both concerts were fantastic. Fagen and co are currently touring again, which will bring them back to the Beacon in October. While the thought of returning to this beautiful venue is tempting, I can’t justify it to myself, given I saw them twice last year and other shows I’ve been to or still consider for this year.
Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times, setlist.fm, YouTube
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.
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.
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.
While Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had a historical financial scam in mind when they wrote the lyrics for Black Friday, not the shopping frenzy after Thanksgiving, I still feel the song fits today’s occasion. They initially recorded the tune for Katy Lied, released in March 1975, and the first Steely Dan album following the breakup of the original five-piece line-up.
According to Songfacts, the inspiration for the tune was the original Black Friday on Friday, September 24, 1869, when a group of speculators headed by Jay Gould and his partner James Fisk, bought as much gold as they could on the New York Gold Exchange to drive up the price. But the government found out about the ploy and eventually released $4 million worth gold from the Treasury’s reserve into the market. This caused the gold price to nose-dive and investors to get hit.
While Black Friday, which also became the lead single from Katy Lied, was inspired by the above U.S. events, it includes the Australian town of Muswellbrook. “It was the place most far away from LA we could think of,” Fagen later explained, “and, of course it fitted the metre of the song and rhymed with book”.
…Black Friday comes I fly down to Muswellbrook Gonna strike all the big red words From my little black book…
Katy Lied was the first Steely Dan album after Fagen and Becker had decided to stop touring and turn the band into a studio act. They also had started to increasingly rely on session musicians to record their music. Black Friday featured Michael Omartian on piano and David Paich on electric piano. The following year, Paich became one of the founding members of Toto. While Steely Dan also worked with various guitarists on the album, including Rick Derringer, Hugh McCracken and Larry Carlton, for a change, it was Becker himself who played the solo on Black Friday.
The single was a modest chart success in the U.S., peaking at no. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. But Becker and Fagen never seemed to care much about chart performance. Plus, like all other Steely Dan albums, Katy Lied reached Gold certification before they went on hiatus in 1981 following the difficult recording sessions for the Gaucho album.
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.’
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!
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.
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
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’sThriller 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!
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
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!
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 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!
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
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.