Written by Emilee Lindner • Photography by Getty Images • June 28, 2017
Since Steely Dan's reunion in 1993, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have been what people would call "extensively touring" for years. The band's famous duo, as anyone would tell you, are well known for being audiophiles, making precise magic in the studio. But now that the band is constantly on the road -- and that they haven't had an album released in 14 years (solo projects excluded) -- they take their perfectionism to the stage.
Before Steely Dan hit the two weekends of The Classic (the legacy rock event also including Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Doobie Brothers and Journey), we're celebrating their live show, so you can get pumped for the upcoming ones. Buy your tickets to The Classic, going down in Los Angeles on July 15 and 6 and in New York on July 29 and 30, here.
Steely Dan have curated an incredibly talented lineup of musicians to go on tour with them. Besides Becker and Fagen, there are often 11 other people on stage during their live shows, filling out the intricate rhythms and melodies woven into the Dan's work. They’ve worked with some great folks in the past, some of them are classically trained, honing their craft since they were in grade school. There are Grammys involved, and work with other legends. So the band for the Classic will sure to be just as awesome.
You’ll definitely get the sense that Steely Dan are meticulous in curating their live musicians. The Steely Dan band aren't just a bunch of touring musicians; they're a tight group of virtuosos.
When you're playing polished music, you need pristine instruments. Steely Dan surround themselves with gear such as "half-dozen colorful guitars" used for their "hot, stinging guitar solos." On any given night, you can see Becker reaching for guitar models from Hahn, Frye, Fender, Fano and Kauer. Like a badass, he also has his own signature Walter Becker model Sadowsky. Given that Becker's a bit of a gear nerd, there are some good resources here, if you're into details about amps, pickups, pedals and such. As for Fagen, he chooses whatever keyboard that sounds "natural" to him. Sometimes that means something with a clavinet sound or something that's dry and crisp -- not necessarily the hottest keyboard on the market.
When you're doing a live show with an orchestra, everyone has to be in sync. That added challenge is probably what drew Steely Dan to the concept for a novelty show in 2016. For the orchestral arrangements, they handed over control to Vince Mendoza of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, feeling pretty confident in what they'd come up with in conjunction with their trusted group of musicians. "We feel like our band is our band. It’s very solid; they can’t take that away," Becker told the L.A. Times. "So basically you’re talking about some fiddle players et cetera."
But leave it to Fagen to give Mondoza more direction: "I told him to go out and buy a copy of 'Agon' by Stravinsky."
Whether they're trying or not, Steely Dan always keep their game face on while performing onstage. Becker cradles his guitars gently, with a loose grip, as if he could manipulate its sound with the lightest of touch. Fagen sings with his head lifted, like he's focusing on the heavens to hit all his notes. When he plays keys, he swings his arm down between chords with an air of confidence. There's a lot of seriousness going on -- no choreography, trippy visuals or fanfare. Just music speaking for itself.
Fagen has one of rock's more unique voices -- with his deep, throaty swoops and accentuated syllables. And it was something he definitely worked at. "Coming from the jazz world, I wanted to hear a real singer, someone who dealt some shit out," he told Tablet magazine. "But I improved over the years. I took vocal coaching. I used to start out real soft."
In early performances with the OG Steely Dan lineup, you can see how Fagen used the microphone, pulling away after each phrase, as to not let any note linger longer than it should.
Not only is their sound accurate and perfected, but they craft other elements of the tour with the same care. The names of their tours have always reflected a thought process -- and are deflightly weird in a time when tours rarely get special names anymore. Their tour titles have ranged from Reelin' In The Chips (that was the string of Vegas shows earlier this year) to The Dan Who Knew Too Much in 2016 to Rockabye Gollie Angel (named after a deep inside joke between the band and fans) in 2015 to Jamalot Ever After in 2014.