Steely Dan Were the Princes of Dad Rock at American Airlines Center
Donald Fagen led Steely Dan into American Airlines Center Wednesday for The Dan Who Knew Too Much Tour.
With Steve Winwood
American Airlines Center, Dallas
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Can a Dan really know too much? If you're a Steely Dan fan, it's a joke you should already be in on. It's the name of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers current tour, after all. On Wednesday night at American Airlines Center, vocalist Donald Fagen inevitably made a quip about it, asking, "Or is it the Dan who knew too little?" But the real question may be whether a Dan can be too smart for his own good.
Steely Dan is the quintessential '70s band. Louche, luxurious and proud of its own excessive skill, the duo (who appeared in a 13-piece lineup on Wednesday) made a point of never dumbing itself down, yet still spawned 10 Top 40 hits and sold 40 million records. Fagen and his partner Walter Becker, more than anyone else, popularized jazz as a part of mainstream rock 'n' roll, and in its day that was a revolutionary thing to do.
Fagen and Becker got their start as studio musicians, and they never really let those roots go. For the past four decades (Becker pointed out last night that they've worked together for a whopping 50 years), they've rotated through a cast of crack players, remaining the only constants in a band that has always been most at home in the studio. Hell, they didn't even tour through the height of their popularity; take that, Beatles.
As such, Steely Dan happened at the perfect time, smack dab in the middle of the Me Decade. Fagen and Becker made a point of surrounding themselves with the best musicians money could buy, right at the same time that the flower children of the '60s began to realize that, hey, money could buy them nice things. Idealism was nice, but aspiration had its perks.
Fagen's partner in crime, Walter Becker, took lead guitar on several songs.
The folks who lived through the era could certainly appreciate all that, but does it translate to everyone else? The crowd at American Airlines Center was predictably older, and almost invariably white. These folks lived through AOR in the '70s, so they know that Steely Dan were the antiheroes — a band who scored hits when it seemed like the mediocrity of Three Dog Night or Grand Funk Railroad would kill rock 'n' roll forever.
But those bands are mostly forgotten today, so Steely Dan could easily feel out of touch. The 19 songs they played stretched out to a full two hours, many of them turning into extended jams that featured multiple solos, particularly from the horn section. The set list bounced between the band's two poles: lengthy, self-indulgent jams and sharp, compact pop songs.
Even those pop songs are irrefutably of a time, though. "Kid Charlemagne," in particular, made for a bizarre single, an oblique narrative fueled on coked-up paranoia and Watergate-era suspicion of The Man (a prominent character in the song). All the same, everyone on Wednesday knew the words and many sang along, even if those words didn't really make any objective sense.
Not surprisingly, nostalgia played an important, underlying role in proceedings. "My Old School," in particular, felt like a hidden anthem for the night, an unspoken acknowledgement that the high school misfits of the world wound up being the cool kids in the long run. "Reelin' in the Years," meanwhile, took on a different perspective: Once a cocky jab written by young men, it was a five-minute encapsulation of the night for the band's middle-aged fans.
But Fagen and Becker still played by their own rules, skipping out on songs like "Do It Again" (their first hit, and one of their biggest) and "Deacon Blues" (their defining anthem), even as, as Becker put it, they played "all the hits." Which makes sense: The Me Decade may have given way to the Reagan years, but Steely Dan always remained the wry, sardonic outsiders. Fagen, with his wrinkled, untucked shirt and disheveled hair, even looked like the Bernie Sanders of dad rock.
But that's the thing about a Dan who knows too much: you may be in on the joke, but the joke could still be on you.
Becker pointed out that he and Fagen have been working together for five decades.
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