Steely Dan brought their trademark groove to the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater, complete with an impressive setlist and phenomenal backing cast.
I don’t know how many times I had to explain jazz fusion this week. It’s simple: jazz fused with other genres, usually rock, or metal. You’d be surprised with the scope of bands utilizing such a musical approach, sometimes subtly, other times throwing the in-itself mega genre right at listener’s faces. Steely Dan, minus “Reelin’ in the Years” (more on that, in a minute) falls into the latter category, but don’t let that alter your perception just yet. What separates Steely Dan and their ensemble of horns, guitars, singers, and cute, little, trumpet keyboards from bands like prog juggernaut, King Crimson, is groove. These guys had it. These guys still have it. And, boy, let me tell you, St. Louis felt Steely Dan’s groove on Wednesday, July 27.
I’ll admit it, I was a little on edge going into this venue. Hollywood Casino Amphitheater — locally termed “shitty parking, shitty odors, shitty bugs,” among the locals — has reputedly poor sound production. This was evident through Elvis Costello’s set. Just look at his setup.
As a neutral Costello listener already, the aging hipster-Dylan failed to catch my attention. Musically, the band explored many interesting topics and instrumentals, but between the sound quality and generally poor vocal performance, there was an air of discomfort surrounding the venue. And not the, “The people here are going crazy,” kind of discomfort. Yikes, did I mention the sound was bad? I know it’s an honor to follow a musical inspiration, but Costello and The Imposters fell victim to the dreaded opening sound guy, complete with inaudible guitars, overzealous vocal volume. And let’s be honest here, that was a mistake in itself. Such a talented and respected musician deserves more. Reviews From the Other Side, unfortunately, can not justify the hype.
That’s enough complaining. Steely Dan practically jumped on the stage, and given both their age and the venue’s reputation, it was hard not to be inherently impressed. The lights were unimpressive, but who attends a jazz fusion show for the effects and fireworks? No, this is a musically complex outfit. As pretentious as this sounds, to understand Steely Dan, listeners need to focus on the intricacies, crescendos, and transitions of Fagen and Becker’s expansive back catalog. Steely Dan is, in no way, a “smoke a joint, drink a twelve pack, and go crazy” kind of band. As Becker would probably put it, they’re a “glass of wine and have makeup sex” kind of experience. Lights and effects would detract from that experience. So, how’s that for practical argument?
I’m getting the scowl, better move on.
Steely Dan opened with two seminal numbers, “Black Cow,” and evening highlight, “Aja.” Immediately, the amphitheater adopted a nightclub atmosphere, the horns and general setup somewhat resembling a big band rig, Fagen sulking to the right, Becker smoothing away to the left. Smooth. If the band could be summed in one word, it would be smooth. “Black Cow,” with its groovy rhythm and heavy accents, moved the audience, not exactly pulling limbs from seats, but making heads sway involuntarily. When attention is brought on a performance with such minimal provocation, it’s a magical feeling to witness.
Then, the opening melody of “Aja” struck the audience’s nerve. Goosebumps all around. The instrumental following Fagen’s suspenseful verse-chorus was the highlight of the night, assaulting listeners with images of China and uncertainty. When stripped to its core, the driving force behind Fagen’s key-trumpet and Becker’s guitar is their newfound drummer’s graceful attack. Becker himself labeled him as “The best drummer of his generation.” And besides Young Guy, I couldn’t, for the love of God, remember the guy’s name. However, the drum solo interludes — you know, the parts where everything goes crazy for a mint — were absolutely jawdropping, not to mention the lighting guy realized he had to wake up. All around, the instrumental highlighted each member’s repertoire. I could spend this whole piece discussing “Aja,” but that wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the band’s set.
Transitions. I’ll always think of Steely Dan as the masters of transition. See what I did there? The jazz genre explores multiple avenues and various emotions throughout its millions of creations. To make these sections, improvisations, and mood shifts work, transitions must flow seamlessly, without risking disillusionment from the listener. Awkwardness is a jazz piece’s downfall. Pretty much all of Aja, “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Black Friday,” “Babylon Sisters,” hell, their whole damn setlist employed perfectly executed transitions. Even the band’s setlist moved between tracks flawlessly. When taking in the scope of Steely Dan’s 19 performances — don’t forget the improvisations — it’s hard not to fall asleep. Yet, musicianship and transition kept the audience’s interest. Because they’re smooth, damnit!
My only complaint is Donald Fagen’s voice. Again, perhaps a mixing or health issue — you have to take a vocalist’s excuse with a grain of salt — but Fagen commonly adopted the vocalist, pull-away-during high-notes-to-feign-passion, trope throughout his performances. Sure, age is a bitch and touring wears out the vocal chords. However, amplifying the band’s background singers to mask Fagen’s struggles served as more of a distraction than if the guy actually attempted some of his more difficult lines. Either way, the overall, instrumental performance far outweighed Fagen’s minor, vocal wear and tear. You get off this time, Fagen!
Believe me, that sounded cooler out loud.
Steely Dan proved once again the impact and importance of the jazz fusion movement during their Rockabye Gollie Angel Tour stop in St. Louis. The parking, bugs, and strange odors were worth it after all. Great show, through and through.
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