Steely Dan Shone Through the Fog at Red Rocks

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The last time Steely Dan played in Colorado, in 2013, a flash flood struck parts of the Denver metropolitan area, and it rained like mad on and off during the show. Much of the crowd bailed, and the relatively small group remaining moved forward in order to, as someone attending this week's Steely Dan concert described it, “rage” for the rest of the night.

"Rage" isn't exactly the word that comes to mind in connection with a Steely Dan show, but then again, one should never suggest to other people what is an appropriate expression for their display of enthusiasm.

In a scene reminiscent of the opening sequence of Werner Herzog's Aguirre The Wrath of God, anyone who got to Red Rocks once the rains died down a little had the unusual experience of parking just inside the entrance of the venue's grounds and walking amid the fog-enshrouded hills. If you were lucky, you heard about the shuttle near Will Call and got to stand in a long line waiting for one of a handful of shuttles that took you to the top of Red Rocks, where the rain and fog made for a surreal, hushed setting. Walking up (and probably riding up, too), you could hear the muffled echoes of what had to be Elvis Costello, and realized that the rocks around you — at least on a night like this, when the weather probably helped some — block much of the sound that would otherwise flood the surrounding landscape.

Once we were inside the amphitheater, it was clear that the near-constant drizzle and the earlier heavy rain didn't thwart what looked like a capacity crowd from attending. And most people wisely came prepared, with ponchos and umbrellas and other weather-appropriate outerwear. It also got cold for July — as cold as it's likely to get without snowing. But all of this was kind of perfect when the stage lights turned down and Steely Dan's backing band took the stage to perform an instrumental bit of jazz to prepare the audience for what was to come. 

When the show lights got going it blended well with the ambient mist of rain and the background of fog. It complimented and accented the dusky smoothness of so many of Steely Dan's songs. The effect was never better than during “Aja,” where the lingering, tonal runs floated off into the ether in the song and off into the foggy gloom of night as well. At the same time, there was an impressive clarity to the sound that embraced you the way late night jazz radio can when you're alone with it on a dark highway or in a darkened room contemplating neglected memories. This was true in spite of the rain, the cold and the fact that there were some nine thousand people around you. That's the effect of Steely Dan's music — as dark and disturbing as its subject matter can be, it feels comforting somehow, and the celebration of the fans in attendance felt justified.

The show featured all the hits, even a song many people buzzed about beforehand, “Dirty Work.” But you can look up an accurate set list on the Internet and listen to a pristine, studio-quality recording that was replicated on stage aside from some inspired extended takes. But you don't get the sheer joy that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen all but exude as performers. These guys who are hipper than thou, and more sarcastic than an average small city of people were having unabashed fun. And before going into “Hey Nineteen,” Water Becker went into an extended bit of exposition that explained the lyrics of the song as though telling the story in plain language and somehow making it topical to Colorado rather than needing to make some clumsy joke about the “fine Colombian.” That he said something about an alcohol made from some plant in Mexico as a reference to the “Cuervo Gold” was so cleverly obtuse you had to admire Becker's wise-ass moxy.

But he also mentioned how the current band is the best he's ever played with in the band's history, with no hint of irony. It was that that made the show worth the effort, the hassle to get there, to be there, to stay there — that gift of personalizing the show in a way that didn't come off like some jaded rock star reading the name of the city off a mic stand and lamely fitting it into a lyric. Because let's face it, Steely Dan may be well-practiced as a band, but its vibe is never rote.

Critic’s Notebook

Bias: I had to rediscover Steely Dan after growing up hearing that music. But it was worth it to learn how sharp and genuinely clever and respectful of the art of music and songwriting that band really is.

Random Detail: Both Steely Dan and Elvis Costello had great merch.

By the Way: Whoever thought to bring in the shuttles, kudos to you. Not everyone can make that hike, especially middle-aged and elderly people and in the rain it would have been incredibly miserable for some people.

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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