Steely Dan at Red Rocks

One of my all-time favorite bands is Steely Dan, and one of my all-time favorite venues is Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado. When I heard that The Dan was playing at Red Rocks, with the added bonus of the amazing Michael McDonald sharing the bill too, I knew I had to see this concert. In fact, I even scheduled my move date to Boulder around this show, which took place last Monday, July 31st. And thanks to the efforts of my colleague, fellow musician, and good friend Jason, we were able to obtain excellent seats (eighth row) for the event. Jason and I used our two extra tickets to bring along our new Boulder friends (and fellow musicians) Tom Higley and David Haynes.

This was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen: the quality of the live sound and the level of performance and musicianship exhibited by the band were incredible. Becker’s and Fagen’s legendary perfectionism were evident in all aspects of the show, and they went through their (extensive) catalog of hits and even played a few I wasn’t expecting to see live, including Aja and FM as well as my personal favorite Steely Dan tune, Kid Charlemagne, which contains (IMHO) one of the best rock guitar solos ever recorded. Larry Carlton recorded that solo back in the day, and he has even stated publicly that it is his own personal favorite solo as well.

The only two complaints I can offer was that I found guitarist Jon Herington’s solo on Kid Charlemagne to be a bit of a let-down relative to Carlton’s masterpiece. Generally, when I see a live show, I prefer an improvised guitar solo, but sometimes the better choice is to cop the original note-for-note. And while I was very happy that Steely Dan played a broad selection of their hits, I was surprised that no material from Becker’s or Fagan’s solo albums nor the band’s most recent works appeared in the set list.

Fagen’s Kamakiriad is another one of my favorite albums, and I was also hoping to hear Cousin Dupree given the recent tongue-in-cheek brouhaha that has erupted between Mr. Dan and Owen Wilson. Finally, while poking around the blogosphere as I sat down to write this post, I found a couple great reviews of the show that are well worth a read, one from Steve’s Round Midnight, and the other from the Lefsetz Letter.

Steely Dan’s music heavily influenced the evolution of rock & roll. They brought a new level of performance and musicianship to the genre and seriously expanded rock’s harmonic and rhythmic palette, borrowing liberally from jazz and R&B, while also extending the universe of subject matter for lyrics, owing to Fagen’s erudite and wry word-smithing. Steely Dan helped move rock & roll from a “guitar, three chords and the truth” to a horn section, half a dozen chords (including the muMajor), and an acerbic dose of ironic-postmodern commentary.

As we sat and watched the show, our group (all music nerds) often exchanged awestruck glances after particularly acrobatic bit of performance, and we scratched our heads trying to figure out what makes Donald Fagen’s mannerisms and stage-presence so, um, unique. As he sang and played his keyboard while wearing dark sunglasses, he jerked from side to side and displayed a pair of rather large canines when he opened his voluminous mouth wide to belt out a high note. Mr. Fagen is truly a weird looking dude. And when he stood up to walk around, his odd gait and arm motions were vaguely reminiscent of Bela Lugosi. Then it hit us: Donald Fagen is the Transylvanian Ray Charles. You heard it here first.

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