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Concert review: Steely Dan at Red Butte Garden

by on August 11, 2013


Steely Dan’s music resides at the intersection of highly polished precision and jazz-fueled jams, and I’ll readily admit that’s an intersection I’ve spent the better part of my lifelong musical fandom actively avoiding.

That said, the Steely Dan appearance in Salt Lake City Saturday night was clearly a big deal for the fans who made it one of the first Red Butte Garden summer concerts to sell out when the season slate was announced. I don’t know if it was the first time ever that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker brought their project to Zion–Steely Dan’s been kicking around off and on since the ’70s, after all–but it’s the first time in my two decades-plus in Utah that I remember them coming to town.

Steely Dan is known as a “musician’s band,” and the reason why was clear from the moment the backing musicians, dubbed the Bipolar Allstars for this 2013 tour, preceded Becker and Fagen to the stage with an instrumental workout of Gerry Mulligan’s “Blueport.” Featuring four horns, guitar, bass, drums and keyboards (and abetted by three female backup singers known as the Borderline Brats), the players on the road with Steely Dan were remarkably entertaining throughout the show, whether taking one of the seemingly endless solos dotting the songs, or tightening up for Steely Dan’s myriad FM staples from yesteryear. Peeking at my Facebook feed during the show, it appeared that every musician in town was at Red Butte Garden posting their thrilled responses to the show, save for the folks with gigs at the weekend-long Uncle Uncanny festival up in Heber.

With the guitar-playing Becker content to blend in with the band, save a couple of turns on vocals and a couple more nonsensical rants and band introductions, Fagen naturally took the spotlight for much of the night. Mostly sitting behind his keyboards or moving around the stage blowing into a recorder, Fagen led the band into the show-opening “Gold Teeth,” “Aja” and “Hey Nineteen,” the crowd on its feet for every second.

After “Showbiz Kids,” Fagen accidentally flip-flopped the band’s pre-planned next couple songs, leading them into “Black Cow” before “Black Friday.” It’s a testament to the skilled players on stage that the mix-up was imperceptible, only coming to attention when Fagen explained what he did after the band finished “Black Cow.”

“Time Out of Mind” and “Godwhacker” led into Becker’s taking over vocals for “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” followed by what I thought was the best performance of the night, an energetic take on “Bodhisattva” that truly showcased the band in all its glory. Drummer Keith Carlock was a powerhouse throughout the show, locking in with bassist Freddie Washington to give Fagen and Becker’s songs a strong backbone no matter what direction they chose. Likewise, the horn section–Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Jim Pugh on trombone, Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax and Walt Weiskopf on saxophone–proved invaluable to the songs, and helped draw this non-Steely fan into performances that otherwise might have left me cold.

The Borderline Brats had their own chance to showcase their considerable vocal chops on “Razor Boy” before Steely Dan thrilled the crowd with old favorite “Deacon Blues.” After Becker used a cover of Joe Tex’s “I Want To (Do Everything for You)” to formally introduce the musicians on stage, and the band followed up with “Josie,” I’d heard enough, even though there were a few songs left in the show.

After all, if I want to hear “Reelin’ in the Years,” I just have to turn on any classic-rock station in American and wait 10 minutes.


  1. A.G. Nokes permalink

    Nailen should not waste his time on “musician’s bands”. I mean, really, who wants to see musicians at a concert? Stick to Lady Gaga or some other less sophisticated fare. You won’t be disappointed.

  2. Adam Vant permalink

    Someone asked Nailen if there was gas in the car, and Nailen replied there was gas in the car. So he left early.

  3. WhataShameAboutMe permalink

    I find it refreshing that a music critic clearly states serious reservations
    for his assigned subject in the first sentence of his review.
    During the first reading of Mr. Nailen’s review, I wondered if we had seen the same show.
    Then, during the second reading of the review, from his standpoint
    of a self-admitted non-Steely Dan fan, the review started to fall into place for me
    and except for a few quick nit-picks, I enjoyed a well-written and gracious appraisal
    of Steely Dan’s night at Red Butte Garden.

    I was fortunate enough to become emotionally and musically attached
    to Steely Dan’s subversive and counter-cultural tone of the early 70’s.
    I feel dismayed for those who first heard Steely Dan’s music
    through the incessant repetition of a handful of well-crafted pop songs
    on some Two for Tuesday or Rock Block Party Weekend programmed
    by woefully unimaginative music directors on the local classic rock radio stations.

    Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have never politely accommodated music journalists,
    The smarminess and standoffish two against nature of Fagen and Becker is legendary
    and would require volumes to cover properly.
    See local interview of note with the Tribune’s David Burger:

    For the record, Steely Dan opened for the Doobie Brothers at the Terrace Ballroom 1/28/1973.
    Many life-long Steely Dan fans have waited over 40 years to see this enigmatic
    band perform live in Salt Lake City.
    It was not a surprise that the crowd stood for the entire show.

    Was it a hits only show?
    Well, looking at this by the numbers we have the following:
    20 songs were performed and of their 15 Singles Chart Top 100 hits,
    10 of these were performed.
    They played one of their three top 10 Singles Chart successes
    and their two biggest hits, “Do it Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”
    were not performed. 3 songs were cover songs, which is somewhat ironic, because
    in the course of nine studio albums, only one cover song was recorded.
    Their last song, (performed while Mr. Nailen was getting out early), Kid Charlemagne,
    peaked at #82, and is rarely ever heard on the radio.

  4. WhataShameAboutMe permalink

    Agreed. Jon Herington is world-class guitarist who should not be overlooked. The flash might come from Carlock, but Herington is the glue for every song performed.

  5. Ha! Not a hack–nor a masochist. But hey, thanks for reading!

  6. Dr. Wu permalink

    I find it hard to take seriously a critic that doesn’t stay for an entire show. Maybe he didn’t understand all the big words. Hack.

  7. John permalink

    I don’t think he cares. Maybe he didn’t want to get stuck in traffic. What a shmuck.

  8. chip j permalink

    Whoa, tough room….

  9. J. T. Broderick permalink

    Nice review. It did not mention guitarist Jon Harington, who did a stunning job of synthesizing all the SD guitarists over the years into solos that acknowledged them but still bore his own mark.

    I thought the take on “Razor Boy” was interesting, but I preferred the Brats’ R&B vocals on ““I Want To (Do Everything for You)” to the high jazzy arrangement.

    The thing Fagen was playing was a melodica, not a recorder.

  10. Art griffen permalink

    Dead on with your bass guitar/drum assessment. We left early too. Fun to listen to but we had heard enough. Fun to see them tho. Rare treat.

  11. jon shuman permalink

    You missed the encore- Kid Charlemagne!

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