Remember when Steely Dan recorded the title song for FM back in 1978, adding a Johnny Mandel string chart that made the band’s snarky jazz-pop take on the patina of elegant movie music? Their back catalog got the 85-minute equivalent of that treatment Saturday in a one-off symphonic gig with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, where “some funked-up music” became some moderately strung-up music.
Once again, Steely Dan showed why it may be the least influential great band in rock history. No one else ever tried to be Steely Dan — which is both a little bit sad and completely as it should be, given the statistical improbability of some kid in a basement discovering The Royal Scam, deciding to develop world-class bebop chops and a sarcastic beatnik sensibility, and calling on the best jazz players on the planet to a not necessarily en vogue variation on rock and roll. That these guys are a one-band subgenre unto themselves makes each of their reunion tours a valuable event, even if they’ve sadly given up producing new recordings as part of their 21-year resumption.
It did include at least one aside never before heard at one of their gigs: “Let’s have a hand for our pyrotechnicians.” If you’re of a certain age and mentality, you might already consider “Bodhisattva,” with its frantic tempo and constant hairpin turns, to be one of the most exciting rock songs ever recorded. So, “Bodhisattva” with dozens of extra players on stage and six minutes of constant, well-timed fireworks overhead? Something even closer to the nirvana they were poking fun at in the lyrics.
Although they’ll usually drop at least one newer number in on other tour stops, all of the songs performed at the Bowl came from the group’s original 1972-80 run. “FM” was not among them, with the band instead putting — maybe allowing is the better word — lush orchestration on 13 selections that never previously had it. The marriage worked wonderfully, when you could make it out. Instead of “no static at all,” it was closer to “no volume at all” for the massive orchestra, which was sometimes seen and not heard over the roaring volume produced by Steely Dan’s usual stage outfit of 10 musicians and three backup singers — a small army that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen used to bill as “the Steely Dan Orchestra” for good reason. But if you could adjust for the idea that the Bowl Orchestra was there more as a near-subliminal texture than co-star, it was a Steely Dan show for the ages, and a suitably historic official kickoff to the venue’s 95th summer season.
It hasn’t been easy to tell how keen Fagen and Becker really were on having their music rendered lush. “We feel like our band is our band,” Becker told the Los Angeles Times in a show-previewing interview. “It’s very solid; they can’t take that away. So basically you’re talking about some fiddle players, et cetera” — typical Steely Dan bon mot/blunt talk that probably wasn’t exactly the glowing statement of intent that string arranger Vince Mendoza or conductor Thomas Wilkins might have hoped for. And with none of the band’s already ridiculously busy arrangements stripped away to allow extra sonic space, there was more going on on stage than one mixing engineer could possibly allow for. It’d be nice to get a recording where we could get a full grasp of Mendoza’s arrangements, which we know to be world-class, based on his previous work with Joni Mitchell, Björk, and Elvis Costello.
Fortunately, a good number of the songs kicked off with a 15-to-30-second orchestral fanfare that let the audience get a touch of the baroque before the hard soul kicked in. And a Steely Dan show sans strings already has the best players in the business on stage, pound for pound, so you can’t blame Becker and Fagen for not wanting to sideline a mind-blowing trombonist in deference to “the fiddle players.” The dynamic duo certainly cared about the reformatting of the show to the extent that the set list was changed to include six songs that have rarely or not at all been heard on their current tour, like “Night by Night” and “The Caves of Altamira.” (Becker was apparently semi-kidding when he introduced the show by promising “hit after hit,” given the fan-pleasing number of deep album tracks on the agenda.) If the climactic “Kid Charlemagne” included the usual nonstop, top-to-bottom guitar soloing and an undertone of mass resin, the show was richer for it.
The unusual amount of premium seating at this season opening was not part of any royal scam: The show benefited the L.A. Philharmonic’s high schooler-mentoring Composer Fellowship Program, with Wilkins announcing that $1.7 million had been raised, a pretty substantial haul for one gig. As proof that charitable proceeds can buy a thrill, the Bowl Orchestra devoted an introductory segment to performing short, impressive compositions by two very young alumni of the program, Anderson Alden and Katya Richardson. You’ve got to love a night in which the rockers are in their late 60s and the classical composers in their late teens.
Here’s the setlist:
“The Caves of Altamira”
“Hey Nineteen” (without orchestra)
“The Royal Scam”
“Night by Night”
“Time Out of Mind” (without orchestra)
“Third World Man”
“Home at Last”