In his 2013 memoir, “Eminent Hipsters,” Donald Fagen dismisses anyone who goes to a Steely Dan concert solely for the hits as “TV babies.” He finds their narrow-mindedness distasteful and cavalierly chastises them for refusing to embrace anything that doesn’t have a Top-40 seal of approval.
Read a little further and you begin to piece together a profile of an artist for whom eviscerating the very constituency he relies upon to earn a living has become an ironic reality. Not only does he rant about one audience appearing so geriatric that he was tempted to start shouting out bingo numbers, he also doesn’t hold back when giving the reader a taste of how deeply he’s soured on the overall touring experience.
Aspen, CO is noted for “having all the modern conveniences, except for oxygen” while Marin County, CA has “nice country, if you’re partial to that sort of thing,” so the myth that rock stars relish the opportunity to soak up every inch of the planet on the corporate dime is dispelled rather quickly.
I prefer to think of the book as a cure for the common tell-all, because Fagen shelves the habitual rise-and-fall-and-rise again blathering in favor of a series of brilliant self-reflections that are heavy on snark and light on faux-sentimentality. The fact that he takes no prisoners when dissecting both the history of the band as well as its present-day ambivalence toward life on the road is refreshing during an era in which too many rockers believe spilling the beans on exploits of a scintillatingly sexual nature is all anyone cares to read about.
Why, you ask, would a 66-year-old hall-of-famer with nothing left to prove continue to subject himself to the daily grind of pleasing audiences he considers dull and averse to change?
Only Fagen himself can provide a definitive answer to that question, but, from where I was sitting inside the Seneca Niagara Events Center recently, the reason for his ongoing slate of public appearances appeared to be that he remains an amazing performer dedicated to carrying on Steely Dan’s legacy as only he and his partner-in-crime Walter Becker can.
The surrounding faces have changed, but the group’s core tandem is thriving as furiously as ever.
Tearing through the seductive allure of “Black Cow” and “Aja” right out of the gate was a wise move, because not even the Niagara Falls “TV Babies” had the energy to resist the ensemble’s excellence following a mere 10 minutes of stage time.
Fagen’s dark sunglasses combined with his swagger behind the piano give off a Ray Charles vibe that becomes more pronounced as he gets deeper into the set. He’s absolutely killing it vocally on this tour and anyone questioning whether or not they should shell out the dough to catch the band before it’s all over can cross voice concerns off their list.
The trifecta of “Hey Nineteen,” “Black Friday,” and “Bodhisattva” lowered the boom on that discussion even harder while simultaneously revealing a heavier side to Steely Dan that people often forget given the band’s affinity for jazzy sophistication. They can jam with the best of them.
When Walter Becker took the reins on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” he joked with the crowd regarding the decision to trim five songs from the set so that the slot machines wouldn’t get lonely, which got plenty of laughs from all angles. As for the song itself, Becker handled the vocal nicely and used the evening’s platform to assert himself as a serious guitar player who never got the credit he deserved the first time around.
Lead guitarist Jon Herington lit up the fretboard on solos for “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Peg” later in the evening, much to the delight of fans who felt they were left hanging way too long to have the classics delivered to them.
Scorching takes on “My Old School” and “Kid Charlemagne” topped off what was easily one of the top three concerts I’ve seen at Seneca Niagara this year, but, as an admirer of everything Steely Dan represents, I wouldn’t have been disappointed had they decided not to play them.
Fagen’s lyrical vision transcends commercial success. He’s an über-literate songwriter whose narrative is continually laced with a sardonic underbelly reflective of the grubby, pre-Giuliani New York City he came of age in, and I, for one, can’t wait to see what he gives us next.
If you still don't get it, might I suggest acquiring a vinyl copy of 1975's "Katy Lied" to serve as a catalyst for your enlightenment.