Concert review: Steely Dan, July 24 at the Walmart AMP

July 25th, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Steely Dan. All photos by KEVIN KINDER, NWA Media.

Steely Dan. All photos by KEVIN KINDER, NWA Media.

There are many bands on the “least cool” list.

I’m not talking about the bands you avoid talking about in casual conversation. You know the ones — You’d never publicly declare fandom for Creed, Nickleback or, for a more contemporary example, One Direction. Not unless you’re a pre-teen lacking fully developed musical tastes, at least.

No, I’m talking about the mathematically complex or nerdy rock acts. Canadian prog rock trio Rush comes to mind — I once watched them toss T-shirts to the crowd from an onstage, semi-functional clothes dryer. I took my dad to that show. It was fantastic. So you can guess where I fall on the nerd-rock spectrum.

Radiohead might fit this bill. So might Tool (haters gonna hate, but I’m not one of them). I think the Velvet Underground — and in particular, songwriter/frontman Lou Reed — fits well here, too.

Donald Fagen, left, and two of the three Danettes

Donald Fagen, left, and two of the three Danettes

These groups, naturally, are among the most polarizing in our popular music cannon.

I’m reminded of this phenomenon because I believe I watched the least cool band of all time last night (July 24).

Steely Dan brought their “Jamalot Ever After” tour to the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion on a slightly muggy summer evening. They brought with them a legion of fans who, well, looked like my dad. Or my mom. At the risk of spilling the secret of that generation’s age, know that the average concert goer at last night’s show grew up when the songs on classic rock radio were current pop hits.

Steely DanWEB003Previous shows at the AMP have drawn considerable numbers of younger fans — Willie Nelson, for instance, still has the kind of iconic status that draws fans from all ages and credos.

Steely Dan, meanwhile, doesn’t have the same kind of broad-spectrum appeal. That’s not to say there were no attendees younger than 30 last night. It’s just to say there were far fewer of them, and the venue was noticably less full as a result. I’d guess 5,000 or so gathered for the show, a crowd on par with the AMP’s earlier show featuring Darius Rucker.

Let’s talk again for a minute about the unlikeliness of what we watched. Steely Dan, stripped down to its essence, is two slightly-beyond-middle-aged men, dressed nondescriptly (I’ll stop just short of saying frumpy) playing complex rock. And not just complex rock, but jazz heavy, time-signature-shifting stuff with obtuse lyrics. This is also a good time to mention a 20-year recording hiatus and a touring moratorium in the mid-1970s even when they were making music.

That this band is known by anyone is a remarkable feat, and perhaps a vote of confidence in the American Dream.

Of course, smart songwriting and expert playing make up a lot of ground. Backed by an ace band, the songwriting duo of Donald Fagen (keyboards and vocals) and Walter Becker (guitar and occasional vocals) serve as unlikely popular antiheros in the music world.

They do have hits, and they played several of them on Thursday night. Radio hit “Reelin’ in the Years,” in particular, provided an access point for singing, and the crowd was happy to oblige. Even that song, with a booming chorus, is surprisingly complex.

But it was on lesser hits such as “Bodhisattva” that the band showed their full capability. Fagen and Becker were backed by a monster band, with three backing vocalists and four-piece horn section. All of them showed their chops throughout the night. Among the band members, guitarist Jon Herington was particularly exceptional. Becker left some of the heavy lifting to him, and he kept picking things up with what looked like ease. Herington’s midsong duel with trumpet player Michael Leonhart was particularly compelling.

Rarely, but noticably, the pace of the show dragged. The band stood fairly motionless onstage, with the minor exception of the trio of backup singers, The Danettes, who swayed in place. Otherwise, that was about it, and the stage decorations were equally sparse.

Which brings us back to the music, and the musicianship. For just more than two hours, Steely Dan rolled through their catalog, and they have enough solid material no one seemed to miss hits such as “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” and “Deacon Blues.”

None of it was particularly cool. The band did not care. The fans did not care. And sometimes that’s the coolest thing of all.

A note about the opener:

Bobby Broom

Bobby Broom

Bobby Broom‘s set consisted of jazz versions of many familiar songs, such as Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious” and Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.” As an all-instrumental occasion, and from a mostly unknown act, the crowd talked through the entirety of the opening set. That said, the set was a good fit for the situation, and for Steely Dan.

  • William Head

    It all depends on what you think is “Cool.” I think jazz is cool. Pop music is not cool. There are too many artists like Justin Bieber and Myley Cyrus. Way too young to be cool. Rappers? They’re rich, and popular with the masses. But cool? I think not. I am sure Kayne West THINKS he’s cool. He ain’t. Part of being cool is not giving a damn. Steve McQueen didn’t give a damn. Miles Davis didn’t give a damn. Too many of the so-called artists in popular culture are in the spotlight because of some “tastemaker” liked them. The problem is, too many of these “tastemakers” like, and choose musicians based on their politics, or on their clothes or hair. They do NOT choose them based on whether or not they can actually PLAY. The Dan can PLAY. Talent never goes out of style.

  • Brian Ross

    Kevin, you just affirmed a wonderful article about Jazz. We speak in metaphor, and the music that most powerfully speaks to us when we’re young is usually filled with lyrics. Big Band was an exception because people danced to it, and there were a lot of lyric-driven songs even back then. Steely Dan’s music is complex. It was unusual for its time, and that it touched a nerve in the 1970s and 1980s with the pop/rock crowd is a testimony to their ability to fuse Jazz to the rock scene much like Earth Wind and Fire mainstreamed Soul with white audiences as well (Google it.)

    Also in the Google it department, I think you’ll find that the “mostly unknown” opening act, Bobby Broom, is only mostly unknown to younger mainstream audiences. The great Sonny Rollins (Google it) tried to recruit Bobby when he was just 16 to go on the road. His parents wanted him to stay in school. He graduated Berklee (Where John Mayer and Esperanza Spaulding and Norah Jones (Jazz once removed) went.) and one of his first jobs was for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He was the only guitarist Blakey ever hired for that epic band. He went on to finally play as a sideman for Sonny, and has played with some of the best musicians in the world. He’s been listed by DownBeat Critics Choice for the last three years as one of the world’s best Jazz guitarists, and he flies like Clapton or B.B.King or Wes or George (Google it.) Steely Dan brought him in so fans could experience something cool for the opening act. It’s a shame that you felt the crowd was ignoring them. They missed out.

    Eventually, as the music of your age passes into the music of our age, one usually broadens their horizons and appreciates more nuance and the joy of great and more subtle sounds. Then someone, several years your junior, will come along and do a very “outside” review of some group that is very near and dear to your heart, and you will know about how your review was taken in by fans of the Dan and of the magic of complex, wonderful music.