I love the entire Steely Dan ’70s catalog, but it’s always rankled me slightly that the music of the Walter Becker and Donald Fagen is often stereotyped as smooth. Indeed, some of the best known and loved tunes of theirs have that quality, for instance, the wistful descending keyboard licks that launch “Deacon Blues,” the subdued marimba that introduces “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” or the spare bassline that heralds “Third World Man” (hmmmm what might have a Massive Attack remix sounded like?). But equally important to the “Dan” repertoire were tunes that sizzled, funked and rocked with no loss of their trademark meticulous precision. Thursday night at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium, Burnt Sugar, Greg Tate and Jared Michael Nickerson’s amalgamation of improvising musicians whose range knows no bounds, took on the Dan catalog in a program that called Any World (That I’m Welcome to) Sex Race Hoodoo & The Steely Dan Conductions | A Hipster Carnivalesque in Post Soul Vernacular. The performance lifted the bandstand, raised the roof and elevated the possibilities of one of music’s most vital repertoire.
They presented a well chosen set of 12 tunes which included iconic ones like “Do It Again,” the first Steely Dan hit single from 1972 and thoroughly obscure ones like “Monkey in Your Soul.” When they began to play it, my friend and seat neighbor who had gleefully danced her way through Pretzel Logic, looked at me quizzically I could only guess that it was also from that 1974 opus. The large band, 15, 16, 19 pieces–I don’t know, I started to count and kept getting too lost in the sounds to engage in precise accounting–plus two dancers and Carl Hancock Rux, who provided some spoken word/rap to “The Fez,” found the raucous elements of each song, and presented them as anthemic. Yet the spirit of each song remained in tact even as one vocalist after another added embellishments and melisma that Fagen might only dream of doing with his plaintive voice.
Conducted by Vernon Reid who grinned for ear to ear for the entire 90 minute set, the band found the right points of emphasis to turn “Black Cow,” “Show Biz Kids,” “Haitian Divorce,” and of course “Any World (That I’m Welcome to)” into showstopping celebrations. The show made effective use of visuals as well. In some cases slides on a screen behind the bandstand deepened the period resonance of songs like “Any Major Dude,” by including backdrops of Nicky Barnes, others were reinforced as timeless, as when they featured Dexter Gordon circa Round Midnight for “Deacon Blues.”
I hope they um, do it again, but I won’t need a second dose; this was indelible. I’m going to sit back and hope they give this same thoughtful, exuberant treatment to the songs from the first few records by The Clash.
Martin Johnson used to write about music for a living; now he writes about music because it makes him feel a little more alive. His work is still occasionally published in the Wall Street Journal.