Steely Dan wasn’t really a band surrounded by much controversy. Standard tales of rock star debauchery or celebrity excess seemed to bypass Walter Becker and Donald Fagen entirely – you’d be more likely to find either member quietly taking in a night of jazz or sitting in a coffee shop reading a book than you would be to see them face down in a pile of cocaine or falling off the stage in a drunken stupor. They had their issues, especially considering Becker’s struggles with drug abuse and the death of his girlfriend in early 1980, but the duo were simply too smart to let anything trivial derail them.
It’s appropriate, then, that the most controversial aspect of Steely Dan is their continued life after Becker’s death in 2017. Since the entirety of Steely Dan had been based equally on both members of the partnership up to this point, it was widely assumed that Becker’s death would lead to the end of the band, perhaps with Fagen undertaking solo tours. That’s what Becker’s estate assumed, and initially, it’s what Fagen had intended to do: retire the name with respect to his friend and musical soulmate’s passing.
Instead, momentum and money got in the way. Steely Dan had a few more concert commitments to honour, and Fagen decided to do them as a tribute to Becker. After those shows, Fagen was approached by promotors with a new series of concerts that they were eager to book under the name Steely Dan. Fagen was hesitant but eventually agreed. This led to a lawsuit by Becker’s estate, who argued that they should have an equal say in the activities undertaken under the Steely Dan name. Fagen countersued, arguing that Becker had relinquished his shares of the band’s output when he died.
The entire scenario left a bad taste in the mouth of most fans, many of whom had been extolling the group’s genius for years under the weight of critical indifference towards the band’s legitimacy and the dismissive categorisations of ‘yacht rock’. Steely Dan was not only an established enterprise, but now one that was getting the credit they deserved and the widespread respect that had sometimes alluded them throughout their existence. Now, they’re a nostalgia act that allows Fagen to collect an easy paycheck with the sort of cold indifference reminiscent of a central character in a Steely Dan song.
It wasn’t always this way: for a few brief years in the 2010s, Steely Dan could have their cake and eat it too. While always a consistently popular live draw, Steely Dan’s acceptance within the canon of pop culture was largely restricted to the critical acclaim given to Aja for much of their career. The duo’s meticulous arrangements, complex compositions, and keen ear for pop hooks augmented by lush production were often at odds with some of the more quote-unquote ‘cool’ bands of the time. Steely Dan, in a painfully obvious way, were never cool.
But then public opinion began to change, not just around the band but around their contemporaries as well. ‘Yacht rock’ was no longer widely reviled but (perhaps somewhat ironically) liked and then fully embraced for its ambitiousness and smooth sound. Steely Dan were always a notch above artists like Christopher Cross and The Doobie Brothers, but there was enough shared DNA (including occasional membership crossover) to warrant comparisons. A band who epitomised how out of touch the music industry was for giving them ‘Album of the Year’ over Kid A was now celebrated for being as ambitious and cutting edge as any group had been.
It was with this renewed sense of claim and adulation that Steely Dan rode through the 2010s. Selling out large theatres and consistently garnering positive reviews for their tight stage show, Becker and Fagen were able to translate a decade of fantastic material into a two-hour showcase. Radio hits, fan favourites, and obscure deep cuts all populated the band’s repertoire, with a typically uber-talented set of killer backing musicians ready to bring their dense studio creations to life.
When the band set up for the Greenwich Town Party in Connecticut on May 27, 2017, there was nothing but optimism in the air. The band had just come off a short but successful Las Vegas residency the month prior, and although Becker had been diagnosed with oesophagal cancer, he was healthy enough to not only perform but also occasionally sing backing vocals. They were close to their home base of New York City, the band was tight from a string of performances, and they were in front of a crowd eager to hear them play.
The band opened with Countdown to Ecstasy‘s barn burning leadoff track ‘Bodhisattva’, a song that highlighted a guest: legendary guitarist Larry Carlton who had performed on four Steely Dan albums and was responsible for the searing six-string lines on tunes like ‘Kid Charlemagne’ and ‘Third World Man’. Carlton was filling in for touring guitarist Jon Herington and made an immediate presence with the lightning-fast runs of ‘Bodhisattva’.
The rest of the show featured the band’s signature mix of hits and deep cuts. Acclaimed tracks ‘Black Friday’, ‘Hey Nineteen’, and ‘Aja’ come next, followed by ‘Show Biz Kids’ and ‘Black Cow’. It’s then that Becker steps up to sing lead on ‘Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More’, which he gives a coy bit of vitality. If there was any pain or uncertainty going on with Becker’s health at the time, he certainly didn’t show it. Instead, he gives a wry performance, complete with guffaws and finger wags towards the audience. Becker never had an ego (he doesn’t even appear on some of the band’s most celebrated songs), but it’s fun to see him revel the spotlight, even for just one song.
The rest of the set is slick and stylish: ‘Time Out of Mind’, ‘Dirty Work’ sung by the band’s backing vocalists, ‘Peg’, ‘My Old School’, and ‘Reelin in the Years’ makes for a crowd-pleasing set. The fact that they don’t even play their biggest hit, ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’, feels more like an afterthought.
The band dedicated the frisbee encore, ‘Pretzel Logic’, to Gregg Allman, who had died earlier that day. This is followed by the two leaders departing to the theme of the ’60s TV show The Untouchables, a strangely apt allusion for a band of such unmatched ability. Little did they know it would be the last time Walter Becker and Donald Fagen ever shared the stage together.
Steely Dan, May 27, 2017 setlist:
- ‘Black Friday’
- ‘Hey Nineteen’
- ‘Show Biz Kids’
- ‘Black Cow’
- ‘Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More’
- ‘Time Out of Mind’
- ‘Dirty Work’
- ‘I Want To (Do Everything for You)’ (Joe Tex cover)
- ‘My Old School’
- ‘Reelin’ in the Years’
- ‘Kid Charlemagne’
- ‘Pretzel Logic’
- ‘The Untouchables’ (Nelson Riddle cover)