Steely Dan resurrects radio hits in rare tour
By John Benson
When Steely Dan’s Walter Becker thinks back to the hazy ’70s that was the band’s heyday, the singer-bassist-guitarist has very little recollection of Ohio.
“I remember doing a gig in Columbus during the ’70s,” laughed Becker, calling from New York City. “We were rowdy and hoolies at the time. A roadie and I bashed in a wall at the hotel and to my great surprise, they later wanted us to pay for the repair. It was an experiment in what later we realized was a Joe Walsh-type of thing.”
He quickly added, “But I wouldn’t compare myself to the master.”
These days Becker and his longtime musical partner Donald Fagen have found great pleasure in rediscovering Steely Dan’s past, which includes radio hits “Do It Again,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Hey Nineteen,”
Specifically, the platinum-selling 2001 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum-inductee outfit is now touring with consecutive shows performing two of its more creative albums — “Aja” and “The Royal Scam” — in their entirety. Local fans will get a chance to hear the former jazzy album Monday and the latter rocking effort Tuesday at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for a while,” Becker said. “And it seems as though given the context of the economic situation, where we’ve been out playing for the last few years and asking people to come again and hear us again, we wanted to do something different from what we’ve done before and yet something that would satisfy some deep urge as Steely Dan fans rather than experiment with new material or something like that.
“Also, doing complete albums in sequence, it turns out we play them a little bit differently. It made us all go back and listen to the records one more time just to think about the idea of playing them as a set piece. Of course it reminds us how much we owe to the fantastic musicians that played on those tracks.”
Those musicians include jazz luminaries Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, along with rock singers Michael McDonald (The Doobie Brothers) and Timothy B. Schmit (The Eagles). This actually brings up a bigger point regarding Steely Dan. For music fans younger than, say, the baby boomer generation, the work of Becker and Fagen has somewhat been diminished and reclassified under the classic-rock umbrella.
The truth is in jazz circles today, Steely Dan is still revered as a high-water mark of musicianship and songwriting. So why is its image tarnished and what exactly will be its legacy?
“I don’t know about how we were lumped to one time or another, but there are definitely lots of new fans who are too young to remember us from the ’70s and that’s a great thing,” Becker said. “I think when you get right down to it, one of the things that’s helped us the most in terms of our longevity is the fact that we really are not as prototypically a ’70s band on the musical level as many of the others. I think what we did sounds less dated. It sounds less antique because of the fact that it had the harmonic elements to it that it had and some of the energy.
“As for our legacy, I hope that people think about music that made them feel good and stimulated them and entertained them in an ambitious way.”