Waiting in the cavernous Northrop Auditorium for Steely Dan to take the stage Sunday night on the Minneapolis stop of their "Rent Party '09" tour (on this night featuring front-to-back the classic album Aja and on other nights, The Royal Scam), I felt a little out of my element. Not surprisingly, I was surrounded by your parents. Not my parents - I'd likely never see them at a Steely Dan concert - but yours. And where I didn't see my parents I saw people my age, but they were yuppies. They were recently-graduated lawyers who drink chardonnay in their downtown condos while rocking out to classics like "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and, when it gets a little late in the night, maybe a little Steve Miller, "The Joker" specifically, while the "crazy" friend passes a gigantic bong.
It's only a matter of minutes before someone asks me if I'm ever going to get married! If I've met a nice young man yet! If I'd like to be set up with the newly-divorced young partner at their firm!
As Steely Dan's backing band -- likely the finest musicians core members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen could find -- took the stage to play some super-square jazz (not the kind you'll likely find Steve covering here, even though he is a professed Dan fan), I closed my eyes and tried to escape this room full of your parents before I began to hyperventilate. (No I'm never gonna meet a nice young man get off my back already!)
I imagined myself in a wood-paneled basement rec room party with Chicago and the Pat Metheny Group. Chicago's in the corner with the coke. Metheny and company are sipping wine coolers. You look left. You look right. What to do? Your parents would kill you if they found out you did coke with Chicago. And drinking Bartles & Jaymes with Metheny? You're cooler than that. But hey, look over there in the corner - The Dan is smoking weed cross-legged on the shag rug. In my fantasy they're in black turtlenecks. One of these dorks is wearing a beret. The other, a kimono. Let's hang with them - they're cool, but "safe."
I opened my eyes to find this crowd full of your parents going absolutely nuts - the collective Dan was taking the stage to kick off coverage of Aja with its first track, "Black Cow." Okay Nikki, you're okay. You're smoking weed with these guys. No one's going to harass you about being single at nearly 30. No one's going to set you up with a young attorney. It's okay. Wait is that a goddamned melodica? Yes, Fagen is playing the melodica.
Screw it. You're not smoking weed with these guys. These guys are nerds. From here, things become surreal. Clean but technically unimpressive solos from the backing band are met with wild applause from Dan fans, then fists are pumped and metal horns thrown by an audience that probably both thinks this is as rocking as rock gets and as jazzy as jazz gets. As we hear Aja from start to finish, Steely Dan then playing its title track followed by "Deacon Blues," my row-mate (serendipitously, I ended up with seats next to two displaced Uptown - R.I.P. - employees) pointed out that one of the background singers had at the beginning ceremoniously put a copy of Aja on a turntable on stage. Can things get nerdier? Yes. As the band completes its rendition of Side A, the singer flips this record to signal their performance of Side B, featuring "Peg," "Home at Last," and "I Got the News." Can we get even nerdier? My row-mate pointed out that from the record's white label, he could tell it was the Mobile Fidelity version of the album.
Where the hell am I?
The Dan wraps up Aja triumphantly with the hit "Josie" and Fagen throws his fists in the air. Triumph! The album is complete! The audience collectively climaxes in a simultaneous nerdgasm.
From there, they thank Minneapolis/St. Paul and announce they'll be now playing other hits from their self-professed "illustrious career" and treat us to hits including "Bodhisattva," "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More," and "Babylon Sisters." "Hey Nineteen" brings us to new highs of squareness with Becker ad libbing lyrics and imploring that we tell him "what's the name of that liquor?" "Cuervo gold!" And again, the crowd goes wild.
Things pick up a bit for "Black Friday" and my personal favorite, "Show Biz Kids" (perhaps if only because I dig Ricky Lee Jones' cover of the song, Jones being a chick who really knows how to fuse jazz and rock with a little more panache and credibility), then I think I hear Fagen introduce his backup singers as "Our Yuppie Choir" (no, he said "our lovely choir") to do the Dan's "Dirty Work" for them. By the time they play "Kid Charlemagne" I'm yawning and wanting one of your parents to wrap me up in their arms and take me home. Mommy? I snap awake when I hear the fella behind me, sporting the most impressive beer gut I've ever seen, shouting out every lyric to the song in perfect cadence.
I have to say it's a pretty brilliant concept to feature entire album on tour - in case one of your music geek friends hasn't yet apprised you Van Morrison has most notably done it recently with Astral Weeks - and for all the nerdiness to both alienate and fascinate this attendee, Steely Dan did it well. They gave hardcore fans a chance to geek out to a seminal work, with the overall performance peppered with enough hits to make the Dan dilettantes go nuts. And the performance itself did really showcase the body of work itself. No stage banter, no strutting about, with spotlights focused not on the Dan duo themselves but on each of the musicians as they played each of their parts - be it at any point the saxophonist, the drummer, the backup singers.
And that's not very rock and roll. That's just about as nerdy as it gets. Keep in mind that their original drummer was Chevy Chase, and the nerd factor hits 100.
Oh, and tell your mother that the next time she sees Steely Dan she shouldn't top off three glasses of lobby wine with two beers. I saw her throwing up in the bathroom. Your mother was "Reelin' in the Years," I tell you what.