Live review: Steely Dan plays Aja at Chicago Theatre
My younger self might've found this totally uncool, but I’ve been converted. I’m a Steely Dan fan—maybe not a zealot like the former members of Aden, but a fan. Perhaps growing up on the East Coast gives me an extra affinity for the band’s disillusioned take on America during its ’70s hangover—I don't know. In my youth, the band’s hits were ubiquitous on FM radio—its smooth, jazzy jams sailed over my head even as I couldn’t shake the tunes and lyrics out of my head. As a teen, I filed the band alongside Fogelberg and other soft-rock acts that had soured me on mainstream music—I expected that I’d live out my life without feeling the need to peel an LP from the mysterious sleeve of Gaucho. But then again, I wasn’t in a rush to spin the dial when “Rikki” came on the air. Since then, my awe for the band’s quest for sonic perfection amid difficult compositions has grown—which has probably dovetailed with a rediscovery trend among hipsters and yacht rockers. Whatever the case, no one has the combination of chops, budget and ambition to make an Aja these days, which makes Steely Dan a kind of royalty.
But midway through last night’s Chicago Theatre gig—which I was surprised to hear had a few tickets still available on Monday afternoon—Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had me turned around and looking back at my younger self a bit wiser, which is not so strange, since at least a few of the band’s well-known songs (“My Old School”) are about looking at the past with nothing resembling nostalgia. The lead-off for this week’s series of Rent Party '09 Tour shows was billed as Classic Album (Plus) Night—so the band (ten pieces including brass plus a trio of backup singers by my count) spent the first hour with the songs from its 1977 platinum-selling record Aja. The album is legendary both for its studio perfection, musicianship and as the most commercially successful jazz-fusion record of any era—but it would be nothing without some fine songs.
After an instrumental intro, the group laid into “Black Cow” then the epic title track “Aja.” Black and gray-clad Fagen ran the show from stage front—working over a Fender Rhodes, sometimes wandering the stage with his melodica, singing slightly off-mike and pulling the band to crescendos a few times standing with arms raised and his back to the audience. Perpetually sunglassed, he said not a word until Aja was complete—which meant “Deacon Blues,” “Peg,” “Home at Last,” “I Got the News” and “Josie” were played in order more or less with every difficult note there and then some. “Aja” and “Josie” stood out for their sublime execution while “Peg” missed the famed Michael McDonald harmony vocal in the chorus. Throughout the night, guitarist Jon Herington and drummer Keith Carlock proved more than up to the task of replicating some of the trickiest parts in the rock canon—but with a visceral impact that connected with those of us who don’t work part-time at Guitar Center. Herington coolly dug into solos on “Peg” and elsewhere—while Becker took more leads on “Home at Last.” Carlock had plenty of opportunities to demo his precision thump between breaks on the kit, a solo later in the set on “Do It Again” and innumerable jazz-rock transitions—and you’d be hard-pressed to find a rocker who wouldn’t be transfixed by his finesse. I simply love his playing.
The crowd loved it, too—well, they loved it all, really—standing ovations and occasional bouts of dancing amid enthusiastic drinking and chatter about recent divorces, mergers and mortgages. The show might have been less about spontaneity than a group of musicians flying at a high level—but Fagen and Co. made it a thrill. And they seemed less like bitter studio taskmasters than a couple of grown-up guys from New Jersey jazzed that people are still digging their scene. Fagen saluted us at show's end.
After Aja, Fagen said “Hiya kids,” to the mix of graying baby boomers and thirtysomething classic-rock devotees then advised us that the band would spend the rest of evening dipping into other favorites “from our illustrious career”—kicking off with “Black Friday” and heading way back for “Bodhisattva,” an amazing take on the lyrically incisive “Show Biz Kids,” the reliable “Hey Nineteen” and "Time Out of Mind" and a slightly jazzed-up “Dirty Work,” the latter sung by two of the female backup singers. Becker did most of the talking—introducing the band during a rave-up on a Supremes riff. Just over two hours in, the band wrapped us up with “Kid Charlemagne” and an encore of “Reelin’ in the Years” in which Herington was allowed to go slightly further off script but was otherwise right on target.
All bodes well for the rest of the band’s Chicago stand. Guitarist Larry Carlton (famous for his guitar solos and parts on Steely Dan's classics such as “Kid Charlemagne”) joins the band for the September 3rd and 4th shows.