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Steely Dan

Jazz Rock/Fusion

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4 stars Fans were delighted when Walter Becker and Donald Fagen reunited as Steely Dan in the early 1990s -- and decided to tour! The two musicians, who quit touring in the mid 1970s to devote their time to studio work, apparently wanted to get out there and play some of the Dan songs they'd written and recorded earlier. They put together a band of top-notch jazz musicians and gave us a live album, including new renditions of some old songs. Some critics complained that Alive In America was too laid back. But others prefer the jazzier readings of old songs like Reelin' In The Years and Bodhisattva. We also finally got to hear Walter Becker's voice on the song Book Of Liars, off his first solo album 11 Tracks Of Whack (which has 12 songs -- you figure it out). Fortunately, the early 1990s renion was not a flash in the pan, as Steely Dan have been recording and touring steadily since to much critical acclaim.
Report this review (#180831)
Posted Monday, August 25, 2008 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars "Alive in America" is a live album release by US jazz/rock act Steely Dan. The album was released through Giant Records in October 1995. released in 1995 by US pop/rock act Steely Dan. Itīs the bandīs first live album and itīs actually a bit of an oddity in Steely Danīs discography as they didnīt tour much after the first couple of albums (not after 1974). The recordings featured on "Alive in America" are culled from performances on the bandīs 1993/1994 comeback tour. Steely Dan initially disbanded in 1981 after releasing seven full-length studio albums. The duo still worked together on other projects (including Donald Fagen's second solo album, "Kamakiriad" from 1993), but after releasing the 1993 "Citizen Steely Dan" box-set (featuring all seven studio albums released between 1972 and 1980), Steely Dan opted to reunite and tour in support of the box-set.

Stylistically Steely Dan deliver their brand of pleasant sounding yet sophisticated and intriguing jazz rock with great skill. The core duo are backed by several touring musicians including a smaller brass section and backing singers. This is a powerful live album with a great atmosphere. Thereīs no talking to the audience which could have made it even better but on the other hand if you havenīt got anything clever or funny to say between the tracks I think itīs better to let the songs speak for themselves. Steely Dan do just that.

The songs selection is great, but honestly most of Steely Danīs output from the 70es could have been included so it must have been a hard pick. I really enjoy "Bodhisattva" which has a great instrumental section with a ripping Walter Becker guitar solo. Walter Becker generally plays some excellent guitar parts on the album. I enjoy "Book of Liars" where Walter Becker gets to sing some lead vocals. Iīve heard others complain about his voice but I donīt share that opinion. "Book of Liars" is from Walter Beckerīs first solo studio album "11 Tracks of Whack (1994)". Donald Fagen sings with conviction and smooth jazzy techniques on all other tracks on "Alive in America".

The sound production is professional, detailed, and powerful sounding, bringing out the best in the material, like the best productions do. Upon conclusion "Alive in America" is well worth your time if youīre fan of Steely Dan, but the more casual smooth/melodic jazz/rock listener should also be able to find a lot to love here. A 3.5 - 4 star (75%) rating is deserved.

Report this review (#196712)
Posted Thursday, January 1, 2009 | Review Permalink
Crossover & JR/F/Canterbury Teams
3 stars I have to admit, I like Steely Dan. I don't love them, but I enjoy their music from time to time. And while I enjoyed "The Royal Scam", it was at that point where their music seemed to lose it's diversity. From that album on, every song, while different in composition, had a sameness in style that made the albums less interesting. And that's the problem with this live recording.

The sound quality is superb. You couldn't ask for more clarity. The song selection os fair, although I would rather hear more from their earlier albums. But I suppose this touring band was built as a jazzy combo that could handle the tracks from "Scam" through "Gaucho". But they attempt to remake some of the early tracks into that same jazzy style. It's particularly disappointing to hear Reelin' In The Years in this way. It loses it's spark.

The highlight to me is a very spirited version of Bodhisattva. They really got this one right. The band blazes, and the additions and changes don't ruin the song.

The low point is the choice of Aja as the closing piece of the album. It's too downbeat, and does not leave the listener wanting more.

So this is a good, but not great live album. I wish they would release the concert they performed for PBS when they released "Two Against Nature". That was a show.

Report this review (#457605)
Posted Monday, June 6, 2011 | Review Permalink
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.

Report this review (#780848)
Posted Sunday, July 1, 2012 | Review Permalink

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