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Steely Dan live!

| August 15, 2011

The idea of centering a tour around a classic album is nothing new, but it’s a concept that always seems to attract both the radio browsers banking on the hits and more studied aficionados craving deep cuts. Few have perfected the formula better than Steely Dan, who first tested it out in 2009 during multiple stands at the Chicago Theatre highlighting different albums each evening, though there was a slight tweak to the concept across a pair of sold-out, inaugural appearances at Ravinia.
In the case of Friday’s concert, the band’s acclaimed Aja earned top billing, followed by a multitude of hits, while Saturday’s show was anchored by fans’ online requests, followed by a shuffled hits set. It certainly encouraged repeat customers, while also demonstrating just how nimble eccentric frontman/keyboardist Donald Fagen and accountant-like guitarist Walter Becker have become since their partnership began in 1972.
During the first show, the co-leaders, an eight-piece band, and three background singers kicked off the sophisticated trip down memory lane with the instrumental overture “Dizzy’s Blindness,” which aptly set the tone for the cocktail-sipping evening. From there, they wasted no time diving into the sax-saturated “Black Cow,” a jazzy, extended edition of the experimental title track from the aforementioned opus, and, after a supporting singer literally turned over a vinyl album, more commercially minded sing-alongs like “Peg” and “Josie.”
While Steely Dan made a strong case that Aja is among its most important works — thanks to its classy, though occasionally untamed, merger of classic rock, jazz — there were plenty later examples of the group’s well-chiseled niche as recently as the mid-2000s. “Everything Must Go” and “Godwhacker” proved the duo can still write catchy, finger-snapping flourishes with their left-of-center sense of humor in tact, while suggesting their musicianship has only perfected with time.
Even so, the bulk of the crowd most likely came to hear the chart-toppers and the group didn’t disappoint, covering memories as far back as the psychedelic southern rocker “Dirty Work” (carried by the backing vocalists) through the lean and sultry “Hey Nineteen” and the more straight-forward retro reflection “Reelin’ In The Years.” Add a surprisingly soulful cover of James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” and the funky, Kanye West-sampled finale “Kid Charlemagne,” and Steely Dan’s sonic smorgasbord was certainly satisfying.
— Andy Argyrakis

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Category: Live Reviews, Weekly

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  1. Jensen Lee says:

    Steely Dan’s 1976 hit “Kid Charlemagne” was loosely inspired by LSD high priest and chemist Owsley Stanley. Rockaeology at has the lyrics and their meanings: With “You’d go to LA on a dare and you’d go it alone,” Becker and Fagen reference a trip Owsley made as described in Ken Kesey’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”: the move to Los Angeles from Berkeley to mass produce LSD in 1965.