Steely Dan
Piazza Napoleone, Lucca, Italy
July 28, 2007

It's April 6, it's early in the morning, and like every morning - with a movement that by now has become second nature - I download the mail sent to Clouds and Clocks. Among the usual spam, there's a message that I immediately notice, thanks to its unusual topic: "Steely Dan a Lucca". A reader kindly writes to alert me about the date and the place where the concert will take place: 28.7. in Lucca; adding, "obviously, I've already bought my ticket. I'll be in row #7". Fast as a rabbit, I immediately react: About two hours later, I have my tickets: row #11.

It has to be said that I had read about a Steely Dan World Tour, called Heavy Rollers Tour 2007. It was only at the precise moment when I received the aforementioned e-mail that I realized that I had silently assumed that the group would not play in Italy. They had never played here! Not in the 90s - when they had surprised everybody by going back to those stages they had abandoned without any remorse almost twenty years before. Nor in the new millennium, a time when they had released new albums and maintained a steady relationship with the "outside world". A glimpse at the tour calendar immediately reminds me of an old problem: their being so underappreciated in Italy. Hence, just one Italian date! Sure, only one in London, too - but how many times have they played in London during the last decade? Quite a few! On the other hand, fifteen dates in Japan... (Six are in Tokyo, and six in Osaka.)

Looking back, strange paradoxes appear. From what I understand, there are many people who consider Steely Dan's music as resembling quite closely what we commonly call easy listening. Sometimes, even those who appear to like the group compare them to things so shallow and so embarrassing that's quite impossible for one to maintain one's cool. Though it may sound strange today, in the 70s Steely Dan appeared to indicate a way (one of many, sure, but not the easiest) that could potentially work in order to take USA rock out of the rut it had fallen into at that time. But it's obvious that when we talk about a "rut" we use the word as a value judgment: those "ruts" quickly turned into the most fantastic (financial) wealth of the decade. Think about albums such as Rumours and Hotel California. Then, think about Kiss: who could imagine that a circus act like that could prove to be so influential, up to the present day?

Sure, we could discuss the relationship that exists between "rock" and "pop" (and yes, those different meanings attributed to the words "pop" and "rock" in different times and places could easily be worth a thick post-graduate dissertation). During the latter part of the 60s, the names of people like Bacharach and Wilson (Brian) were not universally synonymous with "innovation" or "quality", the same being true of Scott Walker. Today we have something quite funny: that while Bacharach and Wilson (Brian) - and, in minuscule circles, also Scott Walker - have been admitted to the Pantheon of the True Innovators, it's their music that has been left out - otherwise, how could one explain the fact that Steely Dan are not in? (I'll leave readers free to examine the topic of Abba.)

To put it in a nutshell, today for many people "modern" equals "abrasive". But while innovators have often seen "abrasive" as a deliberate friction of different elements, which were often quite complex themselves (this is true of both Zappa and King Crimson, and also Can and Steely Dan), in the era of "thinking is hard, and certainly tiring", "abrasive" is seen as something simple that's abrasive only with regards to its timbre. Hence, the use of the word "modern" a propos of things which are incredibly simple, provided they sound distorted; it goes with no saying that it doesn't matter if it's a guitar, a synthesizer or a laptop.

Those four months elapsed between my buying those tickets and catching the plane to Lucca were a time long enough to think about it all. My only fear was that the group would use that kind of dry metronomic precision that appears on those studio albums the group released after their reformation, an element which in my opinion gave them an air of sterility. That kind of sterility had fortunately proved to be absent the only time I had seen Steely Dan "live": their "live in the studio" concert that appears on the DVD-V titled Two Against Nature, a document that's obviously indispensable for those who have never had the chance to catch the group carefully performing their music in a live situation.

As soon as I'm in Lucca, I decide that having a look at the square where the concert will take place is a good idea: the stage is quite big, there's a large P.A., lotsa lights, which I think will work wonders. The morning of the historic day I arrive at the square while the chairs are being assembled in rows, and also getting their numbers: it all looks quite complicated, and a potential source for the proverbial troubles; so I decide to leave nothing to chance, and to sit in my chair quite early. I look at the stage, where two people dressed in black - and who in a short while will prove to be very kind indeed - are working quite professionally under a burning sun.

On the left side of the stage I see a big box full of guitars, the ones that I expected to see: a Gibson 335 and a Fender Telecaster for Jon Herington and a couple of Strat-style Sadowsky for Walter Becker. I have a look at the guitar amplifiers. Guytron - two classic combos 2x12 - for Herington, and three heads in a rack, plus cabinets, for Becker: all is Mesa/Boogie and TopHat. What happened to the Bogner? The taller of the guys dressed in black tells me the amplifier is "in the locker": "Walter likes to play, and he asks for what stimulates him the most at any given time". Regular drums, a four-string bass... a Hammond organ! - obviously with a miked Leslie, a Nord polyphonic keyboard of their Stage series (with a nice acoustic piano sound, and also Clavinet). At the front of the stage sits a Fender Rhodes™ Electric Piano (the 88 model, I think) that Donald Fagen plays. Four mikes for the wind instruments are placed to the left, at the back of the stage, while two mikes for the vocalist are placed to the right, a bit behind Donald Fagen.

I go there in the early afternoon, to find just a few people there. My hope is obviously to catch some sort of a sound-check. Will they do a sound-check? "Nooo, théy've bin playn' since sixty-seeeeven, they don't do a saundcék: they get he-a and go!": This is the answer I get from a guy who obviously thinks he knows what he's talking about. But guys like Becker & Fagen, I think, just because they started playing in... sixty-seeeeven - well, they won't play a concert in a place whose acoustics they've never experienced first-hand. But since I understand I'm considered just a fool, I shut up.

They obviously do a sound-check (yep!). It goes without saying that the whole piazza has to be perfectly empty before they can start their sound-check, and with some trees strategically placed on both sides of the stage one can't see a thing. But one can hear! First piece, Green Earrings: funky, with nice solos, the Hammond, a strong move. Then, there's a track I can't seem to recognize till they do the chorus: it's Dirty Work, sung by the ladies; it's a strange choice (both the song and the choice of singers). Then they play Haitian Divorce: fantastic wha-wha guitar (Jon Herington), it's sung by... Walter Becker? Then it's over. It was terrific - and it was only the sound-check! As a bonus, we see a lady going away, and I immediately decide she's one of the backing vocalists (she is).

(The time has come to talk about a very bad episode that will be confined here in order not to spoil the taste of a concert that was maybe even better that I had hoped. Since I was puzzled by the way the complex sitting arrangement had been laid out, I decided to arrive at the venue just at the moment when the gates were opened: there was almost nobody, I took my seat. It was a bit too on the side for my taste, but not too bad: I could see all the stage quite clearly, and anyway I had a big screen in front of me. Counting the rows I saw that my row was really #13, not #11; but on my chair appeared the right number, so it was OK. It was the first row of sector 2 (spatially speaking, but it was still sector 1 when it came to the price!). There were a couple of meters between me and the row in front of me. Maybe it was better like this. I looked around: how come there were so many empty seats? The concert was about to begin. But I feared nothing: the hall assistants looked quite skilled.

Then the impossible happened: about 250 people arrived at the gate all at the same time, right at the moment when the concert was just about to begin - and begin it did, right on time. What happened was that for the duration of the first three songs, a lot of people walked blindly in the dark, assisted by the hall assistants who - unsuccessfully - tried to contain the damage. To say that all that was happening in front of my eyes - and of those who sit nearby - made  violent beasts out of us would be a classic understatement. Quite odd, all late-comers had an elaborate look, quite appropriate for a party, so different from those of us who got here quite early: white dresses where breasts skillfully placed with geometric precision (1/3 in, 2/3 out) proudly offered themselves to the eye; groups of lost people who mistakenly believed to be totally transparent; "happy family games" (mother + five-year old daughter who passed laughing while lowering their heads "in order not to bother anybody") that almost made us reevaluate Herod; people who passed nearby so many times that we were almost tempted to offer them our seats just to calm their torment. I really think that those who arrived after the concert started should have been left out. Do we really think those savage herds were made of Steely Dan fans? Politely speaking: maybe those "free tickets" have to be treated differently, don't you agree?)

The lights go bright, the group comes in, and they start playing something like a swing intro (by Duke Ellington? Stan Kenton? Home-made?). Then the two leaders come in, and it's the first one: Time Out Of Mind.

A lot of things come to my mind, all at the same time. Well, there's the sound: perfect, it sounds just like a home hi-fi when it's good (so it's possible!). Everything sounds intelligent and crystal-clear, with no bass punch in the stomach and no deafening volume. The result: twelve players that one can enjoy, their complex interactions - arrangements are quite tricky - being always clear. They play as one: it's the same group that toured in 2006, and many of them have been part of the group for quite a while now.

A very good wind section: from left, Roger Rosenberg on baritone, Walt Weiskopf on tenor (also on alto), Michael Leonhart on trumpet and Jim Pugh on trombone. Sometimes both Rosenberg and Pugh play things that sound quite a bit Mingus-like, while Leonhart is your typically brilliant jack-of-all-trades, and Weiskopf plays with a tense, "jerky" phrasing that's quite modern-sounding. They all read off the charts, everybody play with a lot of concentration: thanks to the screens, we can see them (also the other players), catching many tiny moments that otherwise would be lost.

Herington and Becker have very different sounds: Herington's is "fatter and more distorted", and he plays all those parts that after thirty years of listening are by now an integral part of the composition; sporting a versatile sound, impressive performing skills, lotsa imagination (though he tricks the listener into believing that s/he's hearing more of the original part than s/he actually hears), in less superficial days Herington would be seen as a giant. Becker is Becker, with his impossible-to-mistake clear and cutting sound and that "dangerous" relationship between his phrasing and tonality.

For this writer, the real surprise was drummer Keith Carlock: impeccable time, perfect pulse, a rock exuberance that makes everything lively and keeps one always guessing about what's coming next. The perfect other half of the rhythmic pair, subtle bassist Freddie Washington never overplayed; he also played a brief solo where he succeeded in the impossible task of making slappin' 'n' poppin' sound fresh again.

Rarely to the front, always of great importance, Jeff Young filled a lot of space with a lot of taste on his Hammond (he also had a nice solo), while on his (fake) piano he skillfully supported Fagen. He obviously possesses a very wide harmonic vocabulary, and also a very nice voice.

Good-looking and vocally impressive, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery ("lovely and talented", according to Walter Becker the MC) and Cindy Mizelle ("luscious") really did a good job.

Sitting at his electric piano, Donald Fagen looks more and more like Ray Charles with every passing year. A strong, but discreet, presence. His voice is still quite good, so rich with feeling, and he hits all the notes with no apparent effort.

One can't help but notice the great dignity of both original members, who never look for applause by cheap means, who never use the fact of being here for the first time ever to get an easy reaction. The opposite is true, in fact: it's easy to perceive a "distancing effect" in action, where the music is #1, and nothing else really matters. It's funny to see Becker introducing the members of the group with his vocal attitude so similar to that of a Professor of Literature. Had I to offer just one impression in order to describe the whole night I'd choose this one: it's like attending a concert by a band that magically came... from the past? Well, at least from a time when TV had still to make mincemeat of people's minds.

Tonight's concert offers for the most part material from the old albums, with just a couple of tracks off the group's more recent CDs. After the nice opening with Time Out Of Mind, we have Godwhacker in a version that to me sounded stronger and better than the one featured on Everything Must Go: excellent wind solos, the first one on baritone. A touching performance of Bad Sneakers then follows, then we have Two Against Nature, with frenetic percussive performance and a nice tenor sax solo.

Hey Nineteen has a funny spoken interlude by Becker, who talks about "bread, olive and cheese" (it's a part that obviously gets changed according to place and nationality). Then we have Peg, with a great guitar solo by Herington.

Haitian Divorce is a really strange surprise: sung by Walter Becker with an indispensable help from the background vocalists, though it keeps that famous reggae pulse, it mysteriously starts sounding like... country & western! Spectacular solo by Herington, with the wha-wha that skillfully mimics the talk-box of the original studio version.

Green Earrings is excellent, with generous solos (excellent Hammond), while I didn't really get the reason why they decided to play Dirty Work. Typically dry rhythm, and typically dry guitar solo by Becker, for Josie.

Chain Lightning is swinging and bluesy, with very good guitars; it's followed by an incandescent version of Aja, with a duet of drums/tenor sax that doesn't sound inferior to the celebrated studio version. It's followed by an appropriately tense Kid Charlemagne. Then it's over.

What do you mean, it's over? It's hard to take, after waiting for so long. Lights on, about 3.500 people, an interesting age mix. The electric piano begins to play a shuffle, and it's Pretzel Logic in a really good performance. A light touch, My Old School. Becker and Fagen say hello, and go away. Another swinging moment, the end. Ninety minutes, waiting for the DVD-V.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2007 | Aug. 7, 2007