Road opens for jazz rockers
> Assuredness, artistic shift brings Steely Dan back
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.