Road opens for jazz rock­ers

> As­sured­ness, artis­tic shift brings Steely Dan back

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Mark Jor­dan

Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

In 1974, only two years af­ter re­leas­ing their de­but al­bum Can’t Buy A Thrill and with ar­guably their great­est artis­tic and com­mer­cial suc­cess still ahead of them, Don­ald Fa­gen and Wal­ter Becker, the king­fish of the jazzy rhythm-and-rock out­fit Steely Dan, quit the road. For the next six years and four al­bums, Steely Dan would be a stu­dio-only band.

The self-im­posed ex­ile was partly mo­ti­vated by the un­fa­vor­able eco­nomics of tour­ing at that time. Record com­pa­nies lent acts the money to hit the road against fu­ture record prof­its, a “com­pany store” model that left bands like Steely Dan per­pet­u­ally in the red. But Becker and Fa­gen had an­other rea­son that was more deeply rooted in their shared artis­tic tem­per­a­ment.

“We stopped be­cause we wanted to con­cen­trate on mak­ing records,” says Becker. “Go­ing out on the road be­tween records took a lot of en­ergy out of the process of writ­ing and record­ing, and we didn’t par­tic­u­larly want to do that.” And in 1980, there was an­other hia­tus that lasted 20 years, with Becker mov­ing to Hawaii where he still lives and works.

Since for­mally re­unit­ing in 2000, how­ever, Becker and Fa­gen seem to have had a change of heart con­cern­ing the road. Steely Dan re­cently em­barked on its sixth U.S. tour in nine years, a run that brings them to Mem­phis tonight for a show at the Mud Is­land Am­phithe­ater.

Steely Dan’s re­turn to the road was paved by a new­found artis­tic as­sured­ness and a shift in the mu­sic busi­ness model that tilted in fa­vor of artists and their vi­sion.

“We hadn’t been record­ing in awhile, and we had gone through that first rush of that first 10 years of in­tense writ­ing and record­ing, and we just felt more leisurely about it,” says Becker. “The fact that we can make more money for shows now en­abled us to have pretty much any band we wanted, so we are re­ally able to re­al­ize what we wanted to do on stage much bet­ter now than we were.”

While other re­cent for­ays have fo­cused on pro­mot­ing record­ing projects — ei­ther one of Steely Dan’s two come­back records, Two Against Na­ture (2000) or Ev­ery­thing Must Go (2003) or solo ef­forts by the two prin­ci­pals, in­clud­ing Becker’s 2008 disc Cir­cus Money — this time out is strictly about pleas­ing the fans.

Con­cert­go­ers who bought their tick­ets in ad­vance through Tick­et­mas­ter re­ceived an e-mail that al­lowed them to se­lect re­quests from among 50 or so Steely Dan clas­sics, some of which had rarely, if ever, been per­formed live be­fore this tour.

“We’re do­ing the song ‘Doc­tor Wu,’ which I don’t think we’ve done be­fore, and we’re do­ing a cou­ple of songs that we haven’t done very fre­quently,” says Becker. “We’re do­ing ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Num­ber,’ ‘Any Ma­jor Dude Will Tell You,’ and we’re also do­ing the orig­i­nal ver­sion of ‘Reel­ing In the Years.’”

The novel ap­proach is some­thing Becker and Fa­gen have long wanted to try as a way of say­ing thanks to their fans, whose ra­bid de­vo­tion kept their mu­sic alive dur­ing their two decade ab­sence and helped push the group into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

“It’s some­thing we’ve been talk­ing about for a cou­ple of years, and this year it seemed a good time to do it,” says Becker. “Money is sort of tight this year. I hear there’s some kind of re­ces­sion go­ing on. We fig­ured peo­ple would want a lit­tle ex­tra value-added kind of thing and this could be it.”

Since for­mally re­unit­ing in 2000, Don­ald Fa­gen (left) and Wal­ter Becker have had a change of heart con­cern­ing the road, and Steely Dan’s back tonight.

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