Saturday Night: Steely Dan at the Greek
The Greek, Berkeley
July 26, 2008
Review by Jeff Sherman
Photos by Christopher Victorio
It was a nice night for an outdoor concert, but then again any night is a good night for a Steely Dan show and they did not disappoint. But before the main event started we were offered the Joey DeFrancesco trio for an opening act.
I cannot imagine how or why there would need to be openers for Steely Dan (who in the right of mind would take on such a daunting task?), but there they were, three old school musicians: two keyboardists with a drummer in the middle. They were something between a wedding band and a Jimmy Smith cover trio. If I were blindfolded I still would have been able to tell that they were all white. They were pros no doubt but could have used a little more soul and BBQ sauce. (Speaking of white, gazing across the theater, I noticed that the audience was 95 percent Caucasian. I always figured that SD would cross cultural borders but well, not to the degree that I'd initially thought.)
By 9 p.m., the crowd had given the openers their due and four horn players, a drummer, guitarist, bassist and pianist took the stage. They opened with an instrumental rendition of “Everyone's Gone to the Movies." The mix was mercifully clear and the blend balanced.
Fagen and Becker had yet to walk on stage but the band sounded great and they segued easily into “The Fez.” We were treated to another instrumental version as we awaited the dynamic duo. The hired gun on guitar, Mr. Jon Herington, laid out a nice lead solo and then the drummer grabbed everyone's attention with a drum fill that hit hard and fast and simply let you know right off the bat that he would not let this show drag one iota. (I say hired gun but it turns out that guitarist Jon Herington is also the musical director of the band.) As for the drummer…that would be the one and only Keith Carlock and Keith was sounding better than ever.
The familiar intro to “Royal Scam” then started up and out walked Donald Fagan and two female back-up singers. The crowd showed Fagen their adoration and respect with some fierce applause.
When Fagen starts to sing it seems that he is not warmed up vocally and appears to be reaching for notes, but the guy is getting up in age and I applaud his effort in delivering the performance. The harmony singers seem a little off too - I guess Donald was not the only singer who needed a warm up. Still, the sound is rich and beautiful as Walter Becker joins the crew on stage with his guitar and all is well at the Greek.
The band quickly jumps from one song to the next without any stage banter. “I Got the News” is solid with a strong bass and kick. The harmony singers have now locked in, and Becker takes a great guitar solo with a clean, smooth tone. Fagen appears to be playing a Fender Rhodes all night and he too takes a solo on keyboard and that old Fagan style shines through.
The fifth song is “Show Biz Kids." It opens with a sax solo and a solo from Becker. The piano player is singing back-up too and it adds a rich vocal sound. At this juncture Donald addresses the audience and simply mentions that the band would “be playing songs from various stages of our magnificent career." We mere mortals in the crowd could only laugh and nod in agreement as we relished the gems that were offered next.
“Tell Me Everything You Did” opens with a Herington guitar solo using a wah foot pedal effect. The arrangement is adventurous with the bass line and the way the key of the song seems to shift in subtle ways. Very tasteful indeed. Next up is "Two Against Nature," which Becker opens with a solo as the stage is doused in purple light. The song is brilliant with the bass sounding so fat and the harmony singers stretching out at the end and singing in unison. The song finishes with a fantastic horn outro that sweeps to a subtle fade. Beautiful!
Everything sounds tight, upbeat and clear as “Hey Nineteen” kicks off. The harmonies are seamless and the guitars seem to weave together with chords and arpeggios. Both guitarists solo but this time there is a lack of soul in the lead playing. Becker then addresses the crowd with humor and a little segue that leads to a bottle of “Cuervo Gold.”
The ninth song, “Godwhacker,” opens with another guitar solo and Fagen playing a little Melodica. Saxes were blowing and the band was jammin’ and having a ball. Great mix by the soundman. For this song the band was a groove machine par excellence!
The organ starts things off for “New Frontier." The hallmark of this particular song is the lyrics and the phrasing, which were spot on, Sir Donald. Then Herington does a solo and the singers offer up four way harmonies. During the guitar solo I heard some midrange feedback but I think it came from the guitarist’s own amp and not the house PA. Anyway, those two seconds were the only feedback I heard all night and for all I know it may have simply been guitar tone.
By the way, the lights were not a big part of the show and at times they made no sense with jarring colors mixing in the background. Also, there was a strong back light behind the singers and when it was on, it was blinding to parts of the audience. Abuse of lights and sound can become quite fatiguing. Fortunately the light was used sparingly.
The lights dim as Fagan’s keyboard solo leads to the intro of “Home at Last." Becker solos and Fagan stretches out vocally with a slight melody twist to keep things interesting. Becker does an excellent job as he retains much of the signiture licks and tone in his guitar solo.
Now the stage turns bright yellow as the band delivers an upbeat groove and Herington does a fast and tight solo that expertly kicks off “Parker's Band." This time the ladies take both the verse and the chorus and the piano player sings too as Fagen relinquishes the vocal duties and soaks it all in. Meanwhile, the horns are flailing away as they soar like birds in flight.
Next is “Black Friday.” Becker solos and Fagen sings well and hits all the high notes. There are more solos from both guitarists but they miss the mark. Black Friday is a song that needs a fat chunky sound from the guitars and the tone and flavor was just not there.
For “Josie,” Becker opens with a solo that is short and spot on. The vocals are solid three way harmonies and the crowd is on its feet. The crowd feels it and the band seems to know it 'cause they are swinging solid on stage. Becker is soloing in the background and again he is nailing it while we dance in our seats. I must say that Becker’s solos on this song shine and are album perfect. The drummer brings it all back with a smack attack drum fill...hot damn! This house is rockin’ now, baby!
If there was one song the whole night that was performed to perfection it had to be “Aja." It's almost as if Fagen demanded a note for note performance and a studio mix. Do you want to know how it sounded? Put on the CD and you have it. Fagen’s Rhodes sparkled and not a note was out of place. Herington did an admirable job emulating some precision guitar parts with ease. Becker again nailed it and his tone was signature for the song. The bass was smooth and tight like a take in the finest of recording studios. Keith hammered it home on drums with a great performance highlighted by an amazing display of skill behind the kit. It didn’t hurt that the kick and toms were sounding like cannons.
After the perfect performance of “Aja” the band relaxed with a groove right out of the 1960s. As the whole band was having fun, Fagen strolled out with his Horn Melodica and the crowd ate it up. The band followed up with a near-perfect "Peg." (I say near perfect for it takes some time for Fagen to warm the vocal up for this one.) Herington the guitarist lays out an excellent solo with beautiful tone, taste and feel. Bravo, he finally shows us some soul and inspiration. This man can hang with the best of them. Of course it helps that the band is grooving solid.
Speaking of guitar solos, if there is one guitar solo that stands high on Steely Mountain, it is session guitarist extraordinaire Larry Carlton's amazing solo for the classic “Kid Charlemagne." Herington seemed to have elements of the original Carlton solo but for the most part he danced around it. It is not an easy solo to play but that is no excuse. If you are not going to play that solo note for note, please don’t do the song. The casual listener might think I am over-reacting and perhaps I am but I am certain that the die hard SD fans and certainly the guitar aficionados in the audience can relate to my anguish. That being said I must report that Mr. Fagen sang this one with vigor and his thorough enjoyment was easy to see. The pianos were hopping and the singers were floating about with beautiful oohs and aahs. Fagen sings “Is there gas in the car?” and the house instantly lights up bright white as we all answer him “Yes there’s gas in the car!” I don’t know what it is about that line but everybody I know including me blurts out that part. Fagan is a genius!
The band leaves the stage but quickly returns for an encore. The guitars work together to create a beautiful texture as the horns weave in and out. Kudos to the musical director for some splendid arranging. He lays out a sweet guitar solo to boot.
The finale is “Do it Again” and I wish they would. Fagen's vocals are off a little but that is the least of the problems with this arrangement. The song modulates in the oddest ways and in the strangest places. It is simply over the top and not at all smooth as the band seems to have trouble executing for the first time all night. The guitar solo was neat and all but the arrangement was difficult for both the band and the listener. To finish with such an odd duck seems to be an error in judgment. Thankfully Keith delivered an awesome drum solo at the end to help wash out the taste of that song.
All in all it was a night of great musicians playing great music with a great mix. Though we did hear many an attendee grumbling about SD not launching into crowd fave "My Old School."
Personal Bias: Forgive the techiness, I write in my capacity as a soundman of some 14 years and professional guitarist twice that.
Random Detail: As the crew was setting up for Steely Dan, I realized that my backside was getting sore from sitting on the concrete. If you go to a concert at the Greek you may want to bring a cushion.
By the Way: The next stop on the SD tour is Mountain Winery in Saratoga on the 28th.