On a night when country star Jason Aldean got all the headlines for playing in Tulsa, his first gig since the horrific Las Vegas shooting a week and change earlier, Steely Dan was also in the city, only a month and nine days removed from the death of its co-founder, Walter Becker.
In essence, Steely Dan these days is Donald Fagen with a big band of sorts. Even before Fagen took the stage, these cats entertained the River Spirit Casino crowd with the theme from “Inspector Gadget.” You could have given me a billion guesses, and I wouldn’t have come up with that one for an opener.
The band was comprised of a baritone sax player, a guy on tenor and alto, a trumpet player and a trombonist. You had a lead guitarist and bass guitarist, and there was a piano player. Three female singers made up the “Danettes,” and there was Fagen himself on Rhodes. Most of my own playing is done on a more electric piano sound precisely because of Donald Fagen, who oddly enough is looking more and more like Ray Charles every day, with back-and-forth head movement and sunglasses on stage that make him look blind.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention the drummer yet. His name is Keith Carlock, and he plays for Steely Dan and Sting and might be the best drummer I’ve ever seen live. He was easily the highlight of the hired help, if you’re askin’ me. Carlock is so good that he warranted a drum solo within the first three songs, and he received high praise from Fagen, who called him one of the “greatest drummers of our time.”
But everybody at this show knew who was missing, and that was Walter. Fagen acknowledged it early, although he did so without much ado, adding that “life goes on,” a stoic acknowledgment from the man who met his music partner 50 years ago this year at Bard College. It was a stoicism that shows up a ton in Steely Dan music, but it wasn’t without sentimentality either as they played a Becker-penned “Book of Liars,” from the 1995 live album “Alive in America” with family pics from Becker displayed on the big screen.
Fagen told an adoring crowd that he did and would forever miss “his pal.”
Fagen didn’t trot out all the hits with this bunch on this night. Notably missing were “Do It Again,” “Deacon Blues,” “FM,” “Bad Sneakers,” “Babylon Sisters,” “Any Major Dude” and anything from “Two Against Nature” or “Everything Must Go.” Most of the focus was on Aja, with the title track, “Black Cow,” “Peg” and “Josie.”
As Fagen walked to the stage upon the end of “Inspector Gadget,” (feels weird to type those words) the band broke into “Black Cow” and followed it up with “Black Friday” before moving into Aja. The one solo track that Fagen did wasn’t the hit, “IGY,” it was “New Frontier,” an equally delightful song from the brilliant “Nightfly” record from 1982. God bless, what a great album that was.
Steely Dan played “Hey Nineteen,” “Time Out of Mind” (their final Top 40 hit), “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (their biggest chart hit), “Dirty Work” (with the Danettes on vocals instead of David Palmer, an original vocalist with the group) and “My Old School” before closing with “Reelin’ In The Years” from the wonderful “Can’t Buy A Thrill.” Side note: I would have loved to hear them do “Brooklyn” and “Midnight Cruiser” from that same record.
However, it wasn’t meant to be — and that seemingly included omitting huge hit, “Do It Again,” and fan favorite “Kid Charlemagne,” until we realized that Steely Dan’s departure from the Tulsa stage would only be temporary. There would be an encore, and I was resigned to it being “Do It Again,” a perfectly acceptable song but just nowhere as good as “Kid Charlemagne.” I personally consider “Kid Charlemagne” to be the best song they ever did.
And then the first notes of the encore hit, and we knew this Steely Dan show was for the hardcore fans. Fagen and company closed with a killer rendition of “Kid Charlemagne,” complete with stellar guitar work from Jon Herington, who’s been with the group since the mid-80s. The original guitar work on that track, by the way, was from guitar legend Larry Carlton.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but when Walter Becker died, it immediately made me incredibly remorseful that I hadn’t seen them together, just as I hadn’t seen lots of folks over the years. This show became a priority for me, especially to see Fagen, whose solo work I knew before I was even aware of Steely Dan. As a 12-year-old Oklahoma boy with a transistor radio, “IGY” was a staple of early-80s pop radio, and his sound and style became a major influence on my music, too, moreso as I get older than ever before.
Long live Steely Dan.
(If you’re not familiar with “Kid Charlemagne,” here it is live, complete with Michael McDonald, who I’ll be seeing in Tulsa next month. Much of this band, however, is part of the crew that played in Tulsa last night including Carlock and Herington and even the Danettes.)
And last but not least, I put together my own cover version of “Kid Charlemagne,” posted to my YouTube channel at youtube.com/soonerryan2000. Hope you’ll give it a look sometime!