Monday, August 17, 2009

Song of the Week 8/14/09

Steely Dan - "The Royal Scam"

Once in a great while something comes along that makes me think, "Fuck it, I am worthy of spending this extra money." Three weeks ago I made that call when one of my co-workers forwarded me an email declaring that tickets to some Steely Dan dates at the Beacon Theater were being "discounted" for two days only. I use quotes around discounted because cutting a concert ticket from $160 down to $99 isn't really a discount. I'm not one to shell out that kind of money for tickets that often (the multi-artist, multi-awesome ACL Festival being the exception). Yet I felt compelled to break out the credit card because a) in all my years of Steely Dan fandom, I've never seen them play since they reunited in 1994 and b) the album they were playing on the discounted night was 1976's The Royal Scam. It is, quite simply, one of my favorite albums ever.

A decade ago in the RT20 I did a list called The Top 30 Albums of the pre-'90s. The Royal Scam landed at number-29 (it's much higher now). Back then I described how I came to discover The Royal Scam:

"My sophomore year my friend Dave Hoffman turned me onto the wonders of The Royal Scam. Dave told me that he loved listening to this album at a really loud volume in the dark because it 'totally filled the room.' So one night decided to see for myself, borrowing his copy of the album and listening to it loudly when I crashed at a friend room’s while my roommate’s girlfriend was in town. Dave was right—and I was even sober!!! Songs like 'The Caves of Altamira' and 'Don’t Take Me Alive' just came at my ears from everywhere at once. The topper was the title track—I actually felt a bit scared by how perfect it sounded. I went out and bought The Royal Scam the next week, and have let it fill up many rooms in many different apartments since."

(In some strange stroke of fate, Dave called me just before I was going to the Beacon, I told him I was going to see Steely Dan, and he said almost the exact same thing two decades later. Wow.)

Once the lights went down at the Beacon I had a fleeting thought--"What if this is kind of a let down?" After the opening song, "Kid Charlemagne," I knew that a let down was impossible. The track sounded even more vibrant than the recorded version. The band Donald Fagen and Walter Becker had put together for this tour was, well, smoking. And the entire crowd was absorbing in every note and nuance. When guitarist Jon Herington (who was a star all night) did a couple of tasty licks at the end of "Kid Charlemagne" that weren't on the album, the crowd roared as one. I can't remember the last time I was at a show where the crowd was so in tuned with everything the musicians on stage were doing. This audience (which for the most part was probably a decade older than me) was one of the most attentive I've ever been in, and that made the experience that much better.

When Fagen and Becker and company finally reached the album's title (and closing track), I still wondered if it could fill up a dark room. And my goodness, it certainly did. I could have left the show completely happy at that point. But Steely Dan had other ideas, as they did another 90 minutes of great material. "Aja" sparkled, "Third World Man" from Gaucho was a welcome rarity and "Daddy Don't Live in that New York City No More" was a lot of fun. When I checked the time on my phone and saw it was 10:30, I realized that the show was probably coming to an end and I had probably heard all of my favorites from their catalog. And then, as if to make fun of my faulty memory, they broke into my favorite non-Royal Scam song--"My Old School." It was a perfect ending for one of my favorite shows of 2009.

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