Steely Dan / Michael McDonald, Cricket Pavilion, Phoenix, AZ 7/16
The Dan was on my must see musician’ list but probably wouldn’t for various reasons. Welltime has a way of clarifying many imaginary fixed points in space. I had been a Steely Dan fan since high school when I heard the coolest song on the planet “Do It Again” and then gave Aja a spineasily one of the coolest rock albums of all time next to Dylan’s 1965-66 thin wild mercury oeuvre, The Beatles, Live/Dead, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, Floyd’s Animals, Prince’s 1999 and the Phab Phour quartet of cooldom: Junta, Billy Breathes, The Siket Disc and Farmhouse.
And cool is the right word here, folks. There is no one on the planet with more cynically jaded New York lyrics than Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. They share the sort of intellectually hip humor that is neither tiresome nor boorisha very tough accomplishment, believe me. They stalked the radio like a two-headed Upper West Side jazz rock monstercreating timeless hooks and an antidote to the wretchedness of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac residing along the opposing Pacific Coast. Fagen and Becker transcended the 70s despite not touring from 1974 to the mid-90s. Furthermore, with some seasoned help, the duo delivered a powerful artistic statement about sustaining a partnership without missing a single beat despite enduring a nearly fifteen-year hiatus.
My first live SD gateway would end in a near dust storm in the hellhole known as Cricket Pavilion but the men from New York would persevere nonetheless. The setlist was packed with greatest hit material and a few morsels from their solo platters and post-reunion Dan. Quite frankly, calling anything by Fagen and Becker a “greatest hit” sounds superfluous since the duo wrote so many ear candy songs that one is hard pressed to name a non-hit in their heady bag of trickspast or present.
“Bodhisattva” opened the chorus of trippy swoon floodgates with its bad ass strut and a crack team of session musicians lining the stage to help Fagen on keys and lead vocals and Becker on guitar and co-witty banter. Gaucho’s “Time Out of Mind” followed and the band was tight tight tight with the dragon chasing its own tailmimicking and supplementing the lyrical content. Fagen said hello to the near sellout crowd and introduced the title track from the ’77 Aja and they began the long piano intro that lead into its epic sprawl before ending the tune proper after massive sax, percussion and guitar duelettes served to tower over the studio version which fades into the ether. “Aja” was a proverbial “It don’t get much better than that, folks” moment and the band earned its first standing o’ o’ the eve. “I Got the News” followed, also from Aja and occupying an important place on that studio album; whereas, the title track was the second song on side one, “News” is the second to the last song on side two. Put that in your Cabbala and numerology pipes and smoke it, hippies. “Hey Nineteen” then featured a great Becker guitar solo betwixt the cool Aretha Franklin-referenced lyrics. The funk got really sick and deep when “Josie” Aja, again(take a breath) entered the Pavilion proceeded by an insidious Fagen organ intro before bleeding into the wonderful whiplash of “Green Earrings” from The Royal Scam that had the southwest stirring up quite a different storm dance while arcing spasm after spasm of lockjaw intensity intermingled with hip-replacement surgical maneuvers.
“Black Friday” settled things down before “Dirty Work” harkened back to their earliest 70s work featuring a fine duet between the two female backup vocalists. But FUNK in capital letters poured from the stage like a massive and slow worm when Becker sang lead vocals and ripped some signature Dan lines from its 90s release while squelching rhythmic sauce from the guitar. Becker introduced the group, which for the first time since 1974, features Michael McDonald for the final seven numbers (the ex-Dan and Doobie Brah was also the evening’s opening act). “Kid Charlemagne” was wheeled out and McDonald and the group transported everyone back in time through some sort of porthole that was neither dated nor tired. McDonald hasn’t lost a shred of his unique soul styling, which come across as a mixture of Chicago Blues, Motown and underrated everyman’s lamentations. Just because one hears his music in the dentist’s chair while getting one’s teeth cleaned doesn’t equate to wallpaper soundscapes.
“Do It Again” was as sublime as the studio version and brought the grin to the Group Mind but the final couplet of Aja’s Peg and “Don’t Take Me Alive” featured McDonald vocals and keyboard work that enhanced the internal joy with a healthy dose of goosebump soul. The man’s got the Dan genetic code etched into his playing and it was fantastic to hear that the years have not eroded that sweet equation. The McDan encored withappropriately enougha welcome dose of reminiscence with “My Old School” before closing with the title track from the film soundtrack of FMa radio format that they have rightfully dominated for almost four decades.
McDonald, as indicated, opened the show and played a strong set of fourteen songs that neither dipped in quality or melodic perfection. The man can craft a song and it is debatable if his music is too sweet or commercial but that’s a fine predicament for any musician. To write a hit song isn’t actually easy and McDonald has forged a very long career with two very different acts and a solo body of work that is without too much flab, self-indulgence or bum notes. Enough justification. “It Keeps You Running” which happens to be my fave Doob song opened his set and the hair was already up on the collective neck of the crowd. The numerous highlights included a tribute to Scottsdale, Arizona’s Billy Preston who recently passed away as McDonald offered one of the musician’s gospel songs “That’s the Way God Planned It.” Next, McDonald moved into some of the Motown terrain he has cultivated over his last series of albums with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Second That Emotion” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing, Baby” being the standouts of the smooth soul bunch.
After an engaging piano solo, McDonald rolled into “I Keep Holdin’ On” which perfectly segued into arguably his best and most memorable pearl, “What A Fool Believes”a song which may have killed the Doobie Brothers’s direction and career but sits quite well on the pop gem shelf. The joyous and jazzy soul of the evening’s opening set ended with a crowd-enhanced version of the Doob’s “Takin’ It to the Streets”a great bookend and a pleasant exclamation point to an enjoyable 75-minute sample of the Big Mac.