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Steely Dan - Alive in America CD (album) cover


Steely Dan


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.74 | 35 ratings

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4 stars For us Steely Dan freaks the empty 80s were rendered even more depressing by the dissolution in '81 of the partnership of Donald Fagen & Walter Becker, the men that comprised the core of one of the most influential musical entities in all the world. They had made the 70s even more exciting by delivering a string of albums that defined in clever abstract our generation's ever-changing attitudes while still capturing the pure essence of what it was like to be young and vibrant while growing up during that amazing decade. The sole blessing found in their self-imposed hiatus was that they didn't have to suffer the indignity of being forced to come up with shallow, petty videos to promote their songs as their contemporaries had to do in order to extend their careers. By the time the 90s arrived we'd wistfully pull out our copies of the likes of 'The Royal Scam' and 'Aja,' sing along and reminisce about how wonderful it had felt to be intrigued by every fresh offering Steely Dan would give us back in the day. Then, in '95, it was announced that the duo had finally realized that not only was there gold in them thar hills but that modern concert technology made it possible for them to attain in person the high fidelity standards they'd insisted on in the studio environ. They'd last performed live in '74 when, frustrated with the myriad of hassles involved, retired from the stage. Reports that their shows were nothing less than scintillating happenings encouraged their loyal following to dream of a permanent reunion between the two and the subsequent release of 'Alive in America' confirmed that they hadn't lost their ability to thrill. We fans ate it up like Bananas Foster.

When Fagen and Becker recorded 'Pretzel Logic' they'd jettisoned the 'combo' concept and expanded their options and creative potential by allowing studio cats to contribute exactly what was needed on a given tune. In the years that followed receiving an invite to a Steely Dan session became a coveted honor among professional musicians so when Don and Walt put together their backing ensemble for their first tour in 21 years they were able to pick and choose from the best. Anybody who was anybody wanted in on this project. Therefore, from the starting notes of 'Babylon Sisters' onward the listener is treated to the sounds of one of the finest groups one can ever hope to hear. Any Steely aficionado would understandably expect flawless renditions of all the gems included on this album but the live ambience that permeates the venue they're in humanizes both the creators and their creations, resulting in a wholly gratifying experience on many levels. One is reminded of their unique genius when the spellbound audience responds enthusiastically to this song's signature 'You got to shake it, baby' refrain. It's a chill bump moment to treasure. 'Green Earrings' is next and the punchy horn section really gives this tune a huge energy boost. I love the stirring piano solo and the sizzling sax ride that electrify the tune as well as the exceptional guitar lead (supplied by either Georg Wadenius or Drew Zingg) in the last segment. They then segue directly to the greatness that is 'Bodhisattva' and deliver a powerful, driving version of one of the coolest compositions in their arsenal. They kick serious tail and the guitarist not only matches Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter's memorable solo on the original but actually takes it to an even loftier level. The group's astounding performance of this classic on that particular night is worth the price of this CD alone. It's that good.

'Reelin' in the Years' has been so overplayed that I've lost all perspective on it so I was pleased that they took liberal liberties with the number, beginning with the clever piano tease at the onset. A decidedly jazzy slant gives the song a new, more vibrant personality as they allow both the guitar and the sax to vamp freely during the spirited jam. In addition, the brash horn arrangement is killer. Their too-faithful recreation of 'Josie' is the only disappointment I encountered along the way in that there's nothing to distinguish it from the studio treatment. (Okay, I've never been that crazy about the song at all. Sue me.) I appreciate that they tossed us a bone by interjecting a brief drum break but it's not enough to make up for Becker's pedestrian axe work in the latter half. The only non-Dan inclusion comes in the form of 'Book of Liars' from one of Walt's solo efforts. The tune's sweet, jazzy flow is hard to resist, the melancholy aura it possesses compensates for Mr. Becker's unremarkable turn at the microphone and the sax and piano rides elevate the tune from run-of-the-mill status to memorable. The glorious 'Peg' is next and they don't veer far from the blueprints on this one, either, but the vim and vigor supplied by the tight rhythm section fuels the ensemble's performance strikingly and the guitar lead burns a hole in the stage floor. Face it, 'Peg' is too perfect to try to improve in any way. 'Third World Man' follows and I'm so happy it's on here because the song is one of their most overlooked and deserves to get out of the Dan house more often. The lazy groove is hypnotic and the piece's stunning dynamics are to die for, making for awesome aural contrasts rarely detected in modern times.

'Kid Charlemagne' is yet another one of their stellar songs that doesn't need embellishment and they do it complete, uncompromising justice from top to bottom. Next up is 'Sign In Stranger,' a less-recognizable-but-no-less-entertaining ditty whose eclectic words conjure up imaginative visions of shady goings-on. A loping, playful Caribbean beat propels this number and I admire how they changed things up just enough to keep even the most dedicated of fan on the edge of his/her seat. The hot piano solo is brilliant and the horn section breakdown is euphoria-inducing. They end the set with the magnificent 'Aja.' At this juncture the question isn't if they can master the intricacies of this landmark composition but whether or not the drummer (either Dennis Chambers or Peter Erkskine) can pull off Steve Gadd's incredulous, bar-setting performance preserved forevermore on the original LP. On this evening, at least, it's up to snuff and everyone in attendance is fully satisfied. The subtle variations that Fagen & Becker throw in from time to time give it a distinct flavor not anticipated.

'Alive in America' went to #40 on the charts, a respectable plateau for any live album in any era, and that success spurred Don and Walt on to reconciling their petty differences and returning to making notable new music together. Whether it was the lure of box office receipts or just the opportunity to see if the flame of creativity still burned between them, that tour and this record were the catalysts that brought Steely Dan back from dormancy and gave the 'group' a new lease on life. I was fortunate enough to finally catch them in concert several years ago and it was one of the best shows I've ever witnessed. This disc comes pretty close to replicating the charisma-filled sound I heard that night but you really need to see them in person to get the full effect. It'll be money well-spent. 4 bright stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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