On a wonderful summer evening, I had the privilege of visiting one of the best venues in the Chicago area. The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park is a pillar of the outdoor concert community, and I can't believe I considered myself a seasoned concert-goer without ever stepping foot on the grounds. From an extensive lawn where nobody seems bothered that they cannot see the stage, to the wonderful pavilion where there isn't a bad seat - everyone is bathed in amazing acoustics. What better band to drive those acoustics than the perfectionists, Steely Dan.
The show started with an instrumental called "Dizzy's Bidness" that consisted of most, and then the entire backing band. As the two men that make up the heart of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, entered the stage the needle was dropped and the band broke into the 1977 album "Aja".
I've become quite a fan of bands covering an entire album at a show, and Friday night's performance of "Aja" did not disappoint. The tightness of this band and the familiarity with the material really showed as it was a faithful reproduction of the album that reached #3 on the US charts. Though Fagen's vocals are slightly declining with age, he showed no fear in belting out each song with as much energy as he could possibly muster. He was quite obviously having more fun than anyone else at the show. Fagen was given a vocal assist by three lovely backup singers he endearingly referred to as "The Embassy Brats".
After the completion of "Aja", Fagen, Becker and crew broke out material from across the spectrum of the band. This included an interesting prelude to "Hey Nineteen", where Becker informs the audience of the importance of keeping a hip flask handy. Prior to this, Becker had been so intensely focused on the music that he seemed as if this little speech was the first time he noticed the audience. Song after song rocked on, and it became more and more apparent just how great the musicians are that Fagen and Becker have surrounded themselves with.
There were a total of 13 musicians on the stage for the entire show, playing in sync the entire time. This lead to an extended cover of James Brown's "Papa Don't Take No Mess" where Becker once again stepped up to the mic in order to introduce every single member of the band. It was a well deserved salute and maybe a bit too long of a rest before the awesome conclusion that was in store.
The set came to a raucous conclusion with "My Old School" and "Reelin' In the Years". The last song finally got the crowd on their feet - one of my pet peeves at a show is when everyone is sitting down, but the venue doesn't strike me as the kind of place where everyone gets up and dances.
The band was back on stage nearly as quickly as they exited, with Fagen informing us that they still had 7 minutes to play. The band broke into "Kid Charlemagne" and the crowd went nuts all over again. As the show wrapped up, Fagen and Becker exited the stage, and the band played everyone off with the theme from "Last Tango in Paris". This provided excellent framing for a fantastic show. The band played for a solid two and a half hours and didn't let up once. Now that I've crossed Steely Dan off the list of my bands to see, my next objective is to see them again as soon as possible!