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September 3, 2014

Steely Dan: Still Jamming A Lot After All These Years

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Written by: David Smallwood
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I told my twenty-something model actress friend that I had tickets to see Steely Dan. She said, “Great. Who’s he?!”

I smiled and thought of the lyrics to the group’s song Hey Nineteen: “She don’t remember the Queen of Soul,” then looked my pretty friend over and shrugged it off while thinking of another line to the song: “Um um um umh, skate a little lower now.”

She thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just growing old…dirty old men of the world unite, in homage to Steely Dan!

The “Who’s he?” – of my friend’s question – is the cult jazz-rock-R&B band that brought its Jamalot Ever After Tour to the Venue at Horseshoe Casino recently after 40 years as one of the best studio bands there’s ever been.

Steely Dan isn’t even a band; it’s two people – songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – who partnered in the 1970s to record their songs with whatever great musicians they could bring into the studio with them. Through the years, those session players have included Joe Sample, Larry Carlton, Jeff Percaro, Wilton Felder, Michael McDonald, Rick Derringer, etc., and produced such popular hits as Do It Again, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Babylon Sisters, FM, Aja, and all the rest.

Known as studio perfectionists, Fagen and Becker have taken a year to record an album of a mere seven songs (Gaucho in 1980) and have had their studio musicians record as many as 40 takes of each track.

Needless to say, their complex jazz-influenced structures and harmonies are a listener’s dream that not only sounds great on records, but also carries over to the stage, where the musicality and level of musicianship are incredible, as was the case at The Venue several nights ago.

Add to that the fact that Becker and Fagen are pretty much self-admitted depraved smart-asses and you get some of the nastiest, most innuendo-filled lyrics you can imagine. Most of their whimsically sarcastic songs are about sex, drugs, crime, and all kinds of lowlife characters, including pimps and pedophiles.

Becker once said during an interview, “I don’t know how many songs we’ve written about whores – it must be every other one. It’s all very deliberate. You can only say so much about love.”

Fagen has stated that one of his highest hopes was that Steely Dan songs like Hey Nineteen “would be enjoyed by soccer moms in dentist chairs bobbing their heads unaware of the filthy lyrics.”

That’s not a surprise from a duo that took the name for their group from a device in the beatnik generation book The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. In that story, “Steely Dan III from Yokohama” was a giant, steam-powered strap-on dildo.

And at the Venue that night, an overflow crowd happily sang along to the story of Kid Charlemagne, a low-level drug dealer whose business is drying up and really needs to get out of town fairly quickly.

Despite not playing some of their best songs in the Chicago set including Babylon Sisters, FM, and Do It Again – the list they played is included here – the concert Steely Dan performed that night was well worth listening at, as George Clinton would say.

And, remarked one younger staffer at The Venue, “I never heard of Steely Dan and didn’t know anything about them,” but they put on a great show.”

Three-and-a-half out of four stars.

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David Smallwood





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