Photo: Lou Montesano; from 10/14/18
Dating back to their 1972 debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill, Steely Dan has experienced numerous twists and turns in their peculiar career. The brainchild of a partnership between guitarist Walter Becker and keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen, Steely Dan rarely performed live in their heyday, opting for meticulous studio recordings that remain some of the finest jazz-rock albums ever laid down.
Becker and Fagen employed a murderer’s row of session musicians to bring their multi-hued creations to fruition, sparing no expense to deliver a product that rose above the vapid cock-rock and coked-out disco of the day. As such, the Becker/Fagen duo didn’t really find their onstage mojo until decades down the road.
A one-off mid-’90s live album facilitated the formation of a backing band, which eventually gave way to a couple of late career LPs including 2000’s Grammy-winning Album of the Year, Two Against Nature. Eventually the pair cultivated a robust touring ensemble, helmed by searing guitarist and longtime Musical Director Jon Herington, and driven by the determined drumming of one Keith Carlock.
Wednesday, May 25th, Fagen was flanked by both esteemed gentlemen at the Concord Pavilion, as the current-day iteration of Steely Dan rolled into northern California on their Earth After Hours Tour 2022. The engagement was rescheduled from a previous date, originally billed with Steve Winwood opening. But a year later, things done changed. When the band finally did hit the road for the West Coast, they strolled into this East Bay outpost with Snarky Puppy in tow as direct support. Talk about a dream billing.
Snarky Puppy is riding high in 2022, on the heels of another live album recording session (for the forthcoming Empire Central) in Dallas a few weeks back. That was followed by their own popular Ground Up Music Festival in Florida, with a stop in New Orleans at Daze Between. Opening for heroes and jazz-rock pioneers was clearly an honor for these celebrated Texas wunderkinds.
The sun was still up and bright at 7:30 p.m. when Snarky Puppy took the stage right after ticket time, and the Concord Pavilion may not have been prepared for the onslaught of so many people trying to enter the amphitheater quite so early. The long lines and bottlenecking were extremely frustrating, and we were forced to creep along in a very slow queue for the beginning of Snarky’s brief, 5-song set.
The Pups regularly headline their own big rooms around the world, yet the inter-generational lineage and proverbial torch-passing was evident. Bassist and bandleader Michael League humbly addressed the crowd a couple of times when introducing newer compositions or band members, and the whole team’s collective pride was on display.
In the cavernous shed, the sprawling Snarky Puppy ensemble sounded very low volume on this particular evening. Unfortunately, those fans who were lucky enough to be inside for Snarky’s performance chose to talk over the music for the duration. Since the band was quiet and the crowd was chatty, there was an audible buzz of conversation that drowned out the music. By the time we got to our seats in the pavilion, they were starting up “Lingus”, from 2014’s We Like it Here, delivering a super-solid rendition before leaving the stage much too soon.
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The Steely Dan songbook is its own old-timey universe full of shady characters, loose women, gangsters, hustlers, gamblers, lovers, and the underground. These seedy scenes and sardonic stories are set against smart jazz funk grooves rich in obtuse musicality, employing peculiar chordal voicings, invoking everything from swing, to hard bop, R&B, big band, rock n’roll, and occasionally something of a proto-hip-hop sound.
Rap artists from Kanye West and Ice Cube to De La Soul and the late MF DOOM have been mining Steely Dan samples for decades. Mos Def has long expressed reverence for their “thug lyrics about drug dealers and prostitutes,” and a recent revival has seen them referenced by the likes of Thundercat and Mac DeMarco.
It’s a shame that Walter Becker died just as The Dan began experiencing another resurgence in relevance via new generations of music fans getting hip to their game.
On this night, the crowd leaned heavily retiree and was particularly subdued, though not necessarily disengaged. Yet there was very little electricity or vibe in the atmosphere, and I feel that the experience somewhat suffered for it.
Even though fans talked over Snarky Puppy as they filed into the venue, when the headliner took the stage, the entire audience sat still in total silence. While Steely Dan dug into their superb catalog for near-perfect readings, there was absolutely no talking, and almost no dancing.
Venue staff had repeated that the band requested we not take photos or video during the performance. Even though people occasionally pulled out their cell for a quickie snap, there was no sea of phone lights for the majority of the concert.
Minus Becker, who passed away in 2017, Steely Dan unveiled a brief but brilliant set that showcased more of the well-known pop-rock stylings than the expert ménage of jazz, funk, and R&B that helped inform their work in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Donald Fagen’s Fender Rhodes rig was again adorned with a giant tapestry bearing a vintage photo of Duke Ellington and his band. A microphone and music stand stood in the dearly departed Walt’s former onstage spot, a memorial which has been the norm since his passing.
After “Phantom Raiders”, their customary instrumental jazz joint to set the table, Fagen and his super-tight band started things off with the discreetly sinister groove of “Night By Night”. The swollen assembly was locked in from the get-go; they immediately chased it with the midtempo funk of “Hey Nineteen”, from 1980’s Gaucho. The latter, a salacious cut complete with cheeky nods to Aretha Franklin, tequila, and cocaine, wields an undeniable dance groove and voluminous pocket.
“No, we can’t dance together / No, we can’t talk at all.”
Apparently, the denizens of Concord, California took my man quite seriously because nary a soul got up out of their seats to move to the music. This sort of listless crowd energy, or lack thereof, seemed to set the tone for the evening. Fagen shied away from some of the funkiest throwdowns in the SD rotation like “Black Cow’, ”Josie”, “Green Earrings”, each guaranteed to inspire a blissed-out dance party. Instead he would insert a pair of his own solo numbers in “Green Flower Street” and “The Goodbye Look”, much to the chagrin of us Dan die-hards that dotted the pavilion and lawn.
The ever-majestic title track to Aja boasted scorching sax from longtime Steely sideman Walt Weiskopf and scintillating backing vocals from the trifecta of “Danettes” stage-left on the wing. “Aja” also saw Fagen do a little dime-dancin’ on melodica, boppin’ around the stage and nearly taking a spill. The mind-bending “Aja” drum section originally laid down by the great Steve Gadd was equal parts re-created and re-imagined by Keith Carlock, who’s been steadily holding down the mighty Dan’s drum seat for over a quarter century precisely for such reasons.
“Kid Charlemagne”, a treasured tale of Bay Area acid king Owsley “Bear” Stanley, unspooled into frenetic jazz-rock splendor. On this slightly-east-of-San-Francisco night, Jon Herington was the best in town. The longtime SD MD took on the celebrated Larry Carlton guitar solo and made it his own, swag-surfin’ his Gibson hollowbody axe with confidence and aplomb. Second guitarist Adam Rogers, recently added for this tour, was no slouch himself, proving a great foil for Herington.
The buoyant and purposeful bounce of Gaucho‘s “Time Out of Mind” featured more spirited melodica from Fagen, like a shaman channeling a mystical stone. It was this jam that finally forced us to depart from our choice seats and vantage point, outward bound in search of fellow dancers. We simply could not sit to Steely any longer.
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On a raised platform with an obstructed view, we soon found some kindred souls to boogie with. Everywhere else in the packed pavilion, fans remained seated in silence for the entire concert. This made for a very attentive audience, as listeners picked up on the idiosyncrasies woven into Steely Dan’s confounding compositions, but created a bit of a sleepy, anticlimactic setting.
The evening’s sterling centerpiece was a celestial rendition of “Home At Last”, also found on Aja. Nothing short of an epic, the song was inspired by The Odyssey, as protagonist Ulysses attempts to make his way homeward bound in the tailwind of the Trojan War. This deep, patient groove was originally powered by Bernard Purdie’s patented “Purdie Shuffle”, and that intoxicating rhythm is juxtaposed with some heart-tugs from Fagen’s poetic storytelling. Wednesday’s “Home at Last” was punctuated by an adventurous (for Steely Dan standards) jam section in the middle of the emotive reading, making it both the most ambitious and the most poignant peak of the performance.
Fagen did treat the throngs to a selection of iconic chestnuts, teasing a little “San Francisco show n’ tell” to the delight of the Bay Area boomers in attendance. The divine “Babylon Sisters” showcased the iridescent vocals of the Danettes, as Fagen conducted the full band by gesturing his head, shoulders, and making various facial expressions from behind his trademark spectacles. The once-swaggering “Don’t Take Me Alive” may have lost a smidgen of its drug-fueled mid-’70s gusto, but the song still packed an enveloping punch.
Don took a break towards the final turn while Herington and the Danettes led the group through a lush if abbreviated take on The Crusaders‘ “Keep That Same Old Feeling”, a nod to the band’s influence and inspiration. Late in the gig, Fagen reached back for some of Steely’s most nascent numbers, including the free-wheelin’ ’70s guitar rock of “Bodhisattva”, and stirring early ballad “Dirty Work”, the latter’s vulnerable lead sung by the Danettes’ La Tanya Hall.
Culled from 1973’s Countdown to Ecstacy, “My Old School” finally broke the Concord’s collective hush, as the remaining lubed-up seniors started to sing along. Same for “Peg”, Aja‘s high-frequency yacht-rock banger, uncorked late in the set to an audible chorus of cheers and a smattering of dancers. If only folks had responded in such spirited fashion from the jump, we may have had a more jubilant experience.
Fagen briefly left the stage then returned for a single encore. First he took an opportunity to thank his departed partner in Steely Dan, the late great Walter Becker. It was the only time Walt was verbally mentioned, but Don made it count, and Becker loomed large throughout the concert. The anthemic “Reelin’ in the Years”, with its wailing guitar harmonies and driving rock n’ roll attitude, is quite possibly the band’s biggest hit. An appropriate coda, “Reelin'” reached back into yesteryear, one more time with feeling, as Don and company drove us home into the night.
Maybe our everlasting summer won’t be fading quite so fast after all.
Setlist [via Setlist.fm]: Steely Dan | Concord Pavilion | Concord, CA | 5/25/22
Set: Phantom Raiders (Stanley Wilson), Night by Night, Hey Nineteen, Black Friday, Aja, Kid Charlemagne, Home at Last, Green Flower Street (Donald Fagen), Time Out of Mind, Babylon Sisters, The Goodbye Look (Donald Fagen), Don’t Take Me Alive, Dirty Work, Bodhisattva, Keep That Same Old, Feeling (The Crusaders) , Peg, My Old School
Encore: Reelin’ in the Years , A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry (Joe Williams)
 With band intros
 Dedication to Walter Becker
Touring Ensemble Lineup — Earth After Hours 2022
Donald Fagen – keys/vox/co-founder of Steely Dan
Jon Herington – lead guitar/musical director
Keith Carlock – drums
“Ready” Freddie Washington – bass
Adam Rogers – guitar
Jim Beard – keyboards
Walt Weiskopf & Roger Rosenberg – saxophones
Michael Leonhart – trumpet
Jim Pugh – trombone
The Danettes: Carolyn Leonhart, Jamie Leonart, La Tanya Hall – backing vocals.