Steely Dan 2013 merch

Steely Dan Alive In Detroit

Steely Dan 2013 merch
Fox Theater, July 27, 2013

“Hey Nineteen
That’s ‘Retha Franklin
She don’t remember
The Queen of Soul
It’s hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old”—Becker & Fagan, “Hey Nineteen,” Gaucho.

I suspect this may be the last time that I see Steely Dan in concert.  And the reason is simple: They are growing old.  And when you grow old—Fagan is 65 and Becker 63—things don’t work quite as well as they did as when you were young.

Fagan’s voice isn’t as strong as it once was.  Becker availed himself of a chair on stage not long into the performance.  Fagan’s voice actually got better, by and large, as the evening went on.  And Becker got up off his seat sooner, rather than later.

Those guys have been performing those songs for a long time.  And while practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it does make better, which compensates for the loss in performance capabilities.  More or less.

Mind you, it isn’t that this may be the last time because they are growing old and I somehow think that I’m not and consequently I don’t want to see gray-haired or hair-challenged,  increasingly thick musicians.  After all, I enter into that category, as well.

But I just wonder whether those two are going to continue against nature and continue to undertake the unnatural touring life for much longer.

And I must admit that were it not for an absolutely astonishing back-up band, who did much of the heavy lifting (especially Jim Beard on keyboards and Jon Herrington on guitars), it would have been a less-than-stellar evening’s performance at Ticketmaster prices.

///

This is something that truly puzzles me.  Why do we go see bands like Steely Dan?

The last time they put out an album was 10 years ago.  Everything Must Go.

The band has been putting out records since 1972.  In 1980, Gaucho was released.  Then, there was pretty much a Steely Dan hiatus until 2000, with Two Against Nature.  There were solo efforts and the Alive in America recording (1995), but 1980 was something of an end point, it seems, as regards Steely Dan.

There was nothing older than selections from Gaucho played at the concert.  There were all manner of the tried-and-true from the other discs.  “Show Biz Kids.”  “Deacon Blues.” “Peg.”  “Reelin’ in the Years.”  Etc.

So there we were, listening to 30-year-old musical selections, music that we’d all heard, literally hundreds of times.

Somehow this seems a little odd.

There were but minor variations from the way we were used to hearing the music.  Which means that it was little different than what those of us who were at the Fox two years earlier had heard.

If someone said, “So, are you going to see an oldies’ show?” we’d be miffed.

But isn’t that what it was?

///

While the name of the band is, of course, Steely Dan, it could just as well have been Fagan & Becker.  After all, those two are the only points of commonality throughout the band’s career.

It reminds me, in a couple of ways, of Hall & Oates.

In the cases of both sets, they are more successful musically together than they are apart.  Sure, there are some good things on Nightfly as there are on Sacred Songs.  But still, together is better.

And when John Oates steps up to the mic for a lead vocal, a bit of cringe sets in.

A bigger cringe sets in when Walter Becker goes to the mic.

He sang “Monkey in Your Soul” from Pretzel Logic.  And something happened that I have never experienced at a concert.  Never.

When he was done, there was no rousing round of applause.  There was little applause at all.  It wasn’t because it was horrible.  It was just as if people weren’t really sure if they were done, if the song was over.

It must have been offsetting to Becker.  Had I been under similar circumstances, I would have probably wandered off the stage not to return.

///

Two quotes from Fagan.

“We’re in Detroit, so we’re going to play the blues.”  And they launched into “Black Friday.” Presumably, this has something to do with the bankruptcy:  “When Black Friday comes/I’ll stand down by the door/And catch the grey men when they/Dive from the fourteenth floor.”

“Thank you.  We really appreciate it. . .we’re getting old.”  He was thanking the crowd for their strong ovation before kicking into “Kid Charlemagne”: “Could you live forever/
Could you see the day /Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away.”

Yes, I could.

Belle and Sebastian at Pitchfork 2013

In Defense Of #fests

Belle and Sebastian at Pitchfork 2013

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of big music festivals lately. Some of it is valid: the radius clauses imposed by organizers can clearly hurt local venues and the local music scene. And I can’t think of a single band I’ve seen outside that wouldn’t have been better inside a dark club or theater. That said, fests offer a lot of things that you’re just not going to get when you go to a regular show.

I went to the Pitchfork Music Festival on Saturday and had a great time. There were three bands that I really wanted to see and several others that I was curious about. That’s enough for a solid day of music. You don’t need to love every single band. It’s good to have holes in your schedule so you can get some food, reapply sunscreen, and sit on a blanket in the shade. Downtime is essential if you don’t want to burn yourself out.

If you don’t have to travel too far, there’s no shame in getting a single day ticket. It’s important to realize that you don’t need to see everything. Don’t stress out about getting inside much before the start time of the first band you care about. On Saturday Phosphorescent was one of my three must-see bands and they started at 2:30. Sure, it might have been cool to see White Lung and Pissed Jeans, but you know what’s even cooler? A leisurely brunch at Wishbone.

We rolled in and found a good spot just in time to see Matthew Houck and his crew take the stage. The sun was beating down on us pretty hard, which made me happy we hadn’t arrived any earlier. Union Park is small enough that I could slip away for beer and be back before the end of the song.

After that, we threw down the blanket in a shady spot close enough to Trail of Dead’s stage so my pals could move up close for a while. During this chill time we met up with some other folks and spent some time critiquing the fashion choices of our fellow attendees. Happy to see nobody’s wearing corduroys in the summer anymore, but man, what’s up with all the half shirts?

We left the shade to check out Savages for a bit but got hungry after a few songs and left to eat some felafel under a tree.

At this point you might be wondering why I would spend $50 to sit on a blanket with my friends. And I would answer that sitting on a blanket with my friends is one of my favorite things to do at music festivals and something I never do anywhere other than at music festivals. I like drinking beer and eating felafels and watching people and listening to music. When something piques my interest I can get up and walk over and check it out.

I haven’t attended the Forkfest since 2010 but in past years I remember feeling old. Maybe it’s the fact that all the guys have geezer beards now, or maybe the Breeders and Belle and Sebastian appeal more to my demographic, but the crowd didn’t seem that young to me this year. But it’s still fun to see a bunch of weirdos baking in the sun while Swans pummel everyone.

I was excited to see the Breeders play Last Splash. It’s a meticulously produced album that is stranger sounding than almost any other alt-pop from the 90s. Live, though, they were perfectly shambolic. As my man JTL put it, they “brought the slacker cool epically.” I’ve seen the Pixies a few times since they reunited and I’ve never seen Kim Deal smile as much as she did on Saturday. They were scrappy and the mix wasn’t great, but whatever. The band was having fun and it was infectious.

After their set we jockeyed for a good position where we could still see Solange but be up close for Belle and Sebastian an hour later. B&S was the reason I bought tickets the day they went on sale. I saw them once before way back in 2006, and it was a great concert. If you think of them as wimpy and twee you really need to see them live. They rock harder than you’d think, and they put on a super entertaining show. There aren’t a ton of bands that I’d stand around in the rain to see, but Belle and Sebastian is one of them.

Once the rain got heavier, our densely packed spot opened up a little and we had enough room to put on ponchos and dance (gently). I kept looking up at the sky, nervous that the show would be stopped early as Bjork’s set had been the previous night. We were lucky and got a full set.

As we left the park my wet shows squished through the grass and mud. Sure, there are things about fests that you can complain about, things that are less comfortable than they could be, things that are goofy or annoying, but like most things in life it’s about your attitude. If you go in with a good attitude you can have a good time. Realistic expectations and a flexible plan will help too.

A friend’s dad ran for state government back in the day with the slogan: Aim high, hang loose, keep moving. I’m not sure if he won or lost the election, but that’s my motto when I head into a fest. See you at Lollapalooza!

Pitchfork crowd, photo by Alan M. Paterson
Photo by Alan M. Paterson

Beyonce Fan

Why You Should Respect Performers

Beyonce Fan

If there ever was an argument for the superiority of Dyson products, it was made earlier this week in Montreal at the Bell Centre when Beyoncé had her hair tangled in a fan. Had there been a Dyson Air Multiplier on stage rather than a thing with whirling blades, hair stylists everywhere wouldn’t have had a heart-in-the-throat moment. Still, credit must be given to the stalwart performer, who kept on keeping on, singing “Halo,” tonsorial issues notwithstanding.

There must be something about performers, hair, and a contract with Pepsi. Who can forget Michael Jackson in 1984, when his hair caught on fire during the third take of a Pepsi commercial? In Beyonce’s Pepsi spot, there are shattered mirrors, but no fireworks.

(Was Beyoncé’s hair mishap an accident. . .or something else of a more spectral variety, a thriller, as it were?)

While people might think that the life of a musician is all limos and lager, living life large, performing can be deadly. Like the case of Les Harvey, of Stone the Crows, who was electrocuted by a microphone in 1972. Or Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson who had a fatal gripper on stage in 1996, as did Miriam Makeba in 2008. And there are more who gave up their lives so we could be entertained.

Make no mistake: Performing can be hazardous to your health. Of course, if you’re a musician and not performing, it can be equally untoward (cf: Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. . . .).

Noel Gallagher, Russell Brand and Morrissey are mocking your shoes.

Introducing Your Judges

Noel Gallagher, Russell Brand and Morrissey are mocking your shoes.
Noel Gallagher, Russell Brand and Morrissey are mocking your shoes.
Look at this picture and just imagine the comments. Imagine being a poor soul with ugly shoes who happens to pass by. The insults would be earth shattering. Mozzer, Russell Brand and Noel Gallagher all passing judgment on you in a public space? It’s just too much.

But now imagine that rhetorical arsenal put to work for good. Imagine these were the judges of a nationally televised talent show. Forget American Idol or The X Factor or America’s Got Talent…this is Fuck Off The Stage!

Act after act would come out to perform their bit and then stand there as these three loudmouths dress them down for the entertainment of millions. Mozzer’s turn-of-phrase, Noel’s Northern English verbal blunt trauma, Brand’s…Brand-ism. The horror!

And the best part would be that nobody wins…ever. The season would end with no winner, no big finale…just those three guys having pints and talking shit. THAT I would watch.

Photo via Russell Brand on Twitter

Elvis Costello at Hyde Park

The Costello Variations

Elvis Costello at Hyde Park

So I am watching Elvis Costello & The Imposters’ performance at Hyde Park on AXS TV. It was pre-Royal Baby. No lullabies were included. An hour-or-so-long set of the hits being rat-a-tat-tatted out with the drive of Pete Thomas on the drums like a high-speed stamping press.. Accidentswillhappenican’tstandupforfallingdownhighfidelityalisonradioradio. Barely a pause. At one point, a roadie has to step back away from Elvis as he attempts to swap out a guitar. Elvis sweats. He sweats some more. The crowd stands around. Nieve fiddles around with the knobs on his keyboards. Elvis chews—what?—gum. Davey smiles like Karl Pilkington. The band plays on and on and on and on and on.

And something occurred to me.

When Elvis started the set, his vocals were cringe-worthy. He was off in pitch. Off in timing. Just off.

But what was he off of? It was off of the versions of those songs as I have come to know them from his recordings. To be sure, I have seen him live many times. But even there, the sound of the songs, by and large, had to be comparatively close approximations of what had originally appeared on the recordings. Sure, he would mix things up—adding something of a reggae approach to “Watching the Detectives”—but again, all of the audio cues had to line up in some way with what had been released on My Aim Is True.

Here’s the thing: Is it possible for Elvis (or any other artist who is performing his or her own work) to do an off version of one of their pieces? After all, what it is departing from is something that that person had done, as well, and had that person (or a producer or whomever) decided to have another recorded version, another approach that is different from the one that we have come to expect to hear, then wouldn’t the version that we now know be, in some nontrivial way, off from what we expect?

How do we know that there isn’t a deliberate effort to sound crappy? How do we know that the artist just doesn’t want to seem as though he or she has forgotten the words or that their ability to vocalize isn’t want it was some 35 years ago.

What if, say, Costello was to put out My Aim Is True: The Laryngitis Sessions? Wouldn’t a scratchy, barely-audible rendition of “Waiting for the End of the World” be as valid as the “straight” version that we’re familiar with?

We expect everything to default to a definitive version. Variants are acceptable, but only within certain parameters.

Rock and roll doesn’t necessarily work that way. But our expectations do.

The D Las Vegas

The D Goes Down

The D Las Vegas

For about the past year or so, there have been billboards around Detroit promoting a casino in Las Vegas (there are three casinos in Detroit proper, and one clearly visible from the city’s underdeveloped water front in Windsor) that is said to have the Detroit attitude. It is called The D Las Vegas, presumably so as not to be confused with The D Detroit.

So let’s get this straight: Someone is going to want to go from Detroit to Las Vegas so that they can go to a casino that has a restaurant serving Detroit coney dogs? Isn’t the whole point of leaving someplace to go someplace else that you’re someplace else, someplace different? Do Parisians think that the place to go is the Paris Casino? Do Roman’s go to Caesar’s? Are a whole lot of Venetians. . . . You get the point.

It seems somewhat ironic that the day that the D, the authentic city, not the place that is part of the so-called “Freemont Street Experience,” filed for bankruptcy, the D, the other one, announced its lineup for its one-year anniversary this coming September.

The headliner will be Kid Rock. Detroit’s own.

Rock, like Jack White, a former Detroiter, have made efforts to support the city, for which they deserve massive credit.

But it is sad, that the actual city fell so low as to have to had papers filed in court, in large part because there are so few actual jobs making stuff but a whole lot of low-paying jobs in service industries—like casinos.

The celebration at the D is going to kick off on September 26 with Rock’s pal Uncle Kracker. Rock plays the 28th.

Chances are, there won’t be a whole lot of celebrations in the actual D anytime soon.

Nikki Yanofsky & the Sound of Authentic Soul

The other evening I had the opportunity to listen to one of the best vocalists I’ve ever heard in a comparatively small setting in downtown Toronto. What is all the more remarkable is that the set lineup was of music that I appreciate, but don’t much care for. Ella Fitzgerald. Sarah Vaughan. Billie Holliday. Like that. Music of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

Yet there I sat. Amazed. The vocals were rich. The vocals were authentic. The vocals indicated a depth of feeling, passion and understanding that one recognizes as going beyond simple skills to a depth of soul.

The woman who was singing is Nikki Yanofsky.

She is 19 years old.

Her breakout came at age 12, when she was a headliner at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

She is not a novelty act. Yanofsky is real.

She did “I Would Rather Go Blind,” a song that I’d thought was Rod Stewart’s from Never A Dull Moment (1972), but which I learned was Etta James’s. Her recording was done in 1967. But I’d only known of Stewart’s rendition, and it was one that was formative for me back then, back when high school sometime-could-have-been was seen with someone else.

Yanofsky, who has worked with people from Herbie Hancock to Phil Ramone, who has performed live with Stevie Wonder, who has Quincy Jones as the executive producer of an album that will be released in the fall, says that she wants to bring the music of Fitzgerald and the like to her generation.

Yet I wonder.

I wonder whether this is possible. Conceivable. Do 19-year-olds want to listen to music that has stood the test of time in an era where time is accelerated?

One thing that is interesting about Yanofsky is that while there are plenty of others who have vocal range—think of Joss Stone or Leona Lewis (both of whom have a few years on Yanofsky, but are still under 30)—there is very real passion that she evinces in her vocals. Passion is what we crave in music if it is to actually move us.

The conceit of this site is that “Rock and roll can change your life.”

But I would argue it can change your life only if you are younger than 30. Because it is when you are 15 or 19, when you are alone, listening to music, that there are certain artists who have an effect on you that is transformative. At that point in life you are still malleable. Still being created. And certain music can change what you are, what you become. You are falling in love. You are being heartbroken. You are on top of the world. You are at the deepest depths of despair. You are always being formed and reformed.

And there is the music.

We were told not to “trust anyone over 30” for socio-political reasons. But it probably has a lot to do with being 30 and pretty much set in our ways, no matter how flexible we want to claim that we are.

So I listened to Yanosky and was more marveled than moved. At least less moved than I would have been had I listened to her rendition of “I Would Rather Go Blind,” when I would hear “When the reflection of the glass that I held to my lips. . .revealed the tears that were on my face” and then had to go to high school the next day.

Nikki Yanofsky: Web, Facebook, Twitter.

Rock and roll can change your life.