The moment of truth was when Donald Fagen strode onto stage. It was more of a cautious shuffle than a swaggering stride, but it was “him.” Sunglasses and all—and it was a hip-looking cautious shuffle. And it was on!
Steely Dan was and is the smartest smoothest jazz rock pop band of my generation. At first sight Donald Fagen could have been confused for theowner of beachfront condo rental properties in South Florida about to address an audience. And we in the audience could have been confused for an AARP gathering to discuss time-share investment opportunities. We in the audience weren’t dressed to impress each other. But dressed with an understated hipness that included a tacit agreement that “I’ll pretend you look as hip, if you pretend I look hip.” But none of us were there primarily for a social event. We were there for the music.
And the music began. Instantly Donald Fagen seemed to morph from middling condo realtor into a bleached out Caucasian version of Ray Charles. And with whom, like Ray Charles, it is clear from the first note that the audience is in the presence of a musical maestro —who can do things musically (almost as an afterthought) that others would never even imagine attempting.
The concert opened with a middling performance of Green Earing but was followed with the epic Aja—which set the tone for the rest of the evening. The young drummer wasn’t Steve Gadd….but had moments that were Gadd-esque and by the close of Aja the audience had tapped into their inner Steely Dan.
Walter Becker reminisced with the audience during Hey Nineteen about a night involving Cuervo Gold and made us all feel like we had attended the same high school as he reminded us, “You all remember what it is was like. You know what it’s like now. And that is that and will always be that way.” We were peers more than fans.
Donald Fagen introduced “King of the World” from the album Coundown to Ecstasy saying it is a “new song for the band” that they hadn’t played since the 70’s and was “from a different life.” Adding to the audience, “You all can relate to that, right?” Although King of the World started clumsily The Dan found their bearings and finished elegantly. It was an inspired and inspirational moment. In addition to reveling in the music the audience was reminded that sometimes we, too, are still capably of conjuring up our creative energies and elegantly reprising something we did in the 70’s –and doing it almost as well as we did back then.
The audience began to bond with each other as we remembered that one of the things we liked about being Dan fans is that it made us feel a little superior to everyone else. Steely Dan is known for their smarty pants lyrics that take the listener to places other bands have never heard of (or if they have heard of it, wouldn’t know that it’s a chic place to go). We secretly suspect that our Dan audiences have a higher percentage of MENSA members than most other concerts. A few in the audience stood and tried dancing the entire concert, which also reminded us that Steely Dan fans weren’t always the coolest kids in high school—just the ones with the best taste in music. It’s hard to dance to Steely Dan anyway. They were always more about the music than the concert experience. In fact, for yeas they refused to even play concerts preferring instead to create flawless sounds from the studio with some of the best back-up musicians in the industry.
The highlight of the night was Bodhisattva about midway through the concert. They brought down the house with a riveting rendition of the band’s most rockin’ song. Which is fitting. A Bodhisattva, after all, is an Eastern religion enlightened being who compassionately refrains from entering Nirvana in order to save others. I think Steely Dan serves that role musically in their own Western way. And we are the beneficiaries.
As the band played on our reaction as an audience reminded me less of a typical frenzied and interactive rock concert audience and more like an audience that simultaneously followed Timothy Leary’s admonition to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” That’s what Dan fans tend to do. When they turn on their music anyway. We behave well in concerts. Many in the audience may have had a cool buzz but no one passed out. Although nearing the end of the concert a handful of us had nodded off since it was well past our bedtime. More of a personal intermission power nap than falling asleep. We wanted to be alert for the encore.
And we weren’t disappointed when they chose to cue up Kid Charlemagne for the finale. At least that was the last song I heard. We left a little early to beat the crowd. Sure, we Dan fans love our music but we are also practical and a little self-absorbed, too, and hate being stuck in traffic.
As the Palace doors opened into the streets we talked freely to one another like we were in the same high school but just hadn’t spoken before. We all seemed to leave a little happier than we arrived. And feeling a little better about ourselves and the world we live in—and the world we lived in when we first discovered our band.
Earlier in the evening Walter Becker spoke to us not as a faceless audience but as casual peers as if we were at the house of a mutual friend and we were all just standing around downstairs listening to him and his friend Donald Fagen play the party. He reminded us that back in the day we were good. And hadn’t changed all that much. We liked hearing that and even applauded. But more importantly, as we walked back into our individual worlds after this brief escape, the performance had put us back in touch with a part of our best selves. The music helped us remember our better selves—perhaps even remembering ourselves better than we really were.
And we felt for the first time in a long time like maybe we really were that good after all— and, like Steely Dan, could still be again.