Friday, August 22, 2008

Can't Buy a Thrill

"Can't buy a Thrill." That's the title of a really good album by one of my favorite bands. (And I use the term "bands" loosely, knowing full well that Steely Dan is two guys plus a bunch of studio musicians). And that band, as you may have surmised (and if not surmised, parenthetically deduced), is "Steely Dan." And that band is named after a dildo in William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch." And much as I like their music, I'm tempted to say "aptly named."

I'd heard that Steely Dan was strictly a studio group, but when I saw that they were playing in Houston, I went and bought tickets. I logged on to Ticketmaster relatively early, and ended up with a pair of tickets in row P in the center section at the Verizon Wireless Theater in Houston. And they weren't cheap. $125 per ticket, and with Ticketmaster's "convenience charge" and tax, it was just under $300 for two decent-but-not-great tickets. Add in gas to drive to and from Beaumont, dinner and drinks, and we're talking almost five hundred bucks for a night out. But what the hell, it's Steely Dan. It'll be worth it. Right?

Turns out that the answer to that question is "no." And I'm pissed.

Dinner and drinks were good (the Raven Grill gets a really big 'thumbs up') but Steely Dan in concert totally sucked. And by "totally sucked," I mean "totally sucked." It was not worth the time, much less the money.

First of all, the sound absolutely awful. The keyboards were way too loud relative to everything else, with a rasping, piercing sound only marginally less unpleasant that fingernail on a chalkboard or rubbing a balloon.

But even really bad sound can sometimes be ameliorated with really really good music, and Steely Dan has lots of really good music that they could play. Did I mention how much I really really like Steely Dan's music?

(BTW, in addition to Mr. Steely and Mr. Dan, there was an eight piece band (keyboards, drums, trombone, trumpet, two saxophones, bass and guitar) and three big 'fro'd backup singers. All of whom, I'm sure, were masters of their respective arts.)

But did they play good music? Hell no. It wasn't five minutes into the "Steely Dan" part of the show that I started looking at my watch. I don't know what that first song was, but it went on and on and on and just wouldn't stop. And it wasn't even slightly musically interesting. Just the same thing over and over again, until it started sounding like a dentist's drill.

And for what seemed like the first half hour, it was pretty much more of the same. Just the band--sans Becker and Fagen--doing some sort of Spinal Tap-esque Jazz Odyssey while we waited for the folks we paid an arm and a leg to see to finally come out and do their job.

And when they came out to do their job, they mostly played a lot of b-side crap. There were a few of the hits thrown in, and a bit more densely as the night wore on. So basically it was painful for the first half of the show, and then got mostly tolerable with even a few good moments on those rare occasions when they played something recognizable. But they somehow managed to leave out every single song I paid to hear--no "Rikki Don't Lose that Number;" no "Deacon Blues;" no "Do It Again," no "Reelin' In the Years." Not even in the encores.

And if all that's not bad enough, Fagen seemed to be self-consciously trying to look cool, but he ended up looking like a cross between Ray Charles in "The Blues Brothers" (for the smile, head movements, and shades) and George Carlin as Rufus in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (for his general appearance).

Pardon me for being a Philistine,but if I pay big bucks to hear a big name band play in a big venue, I expect to hear the big hits played over a good sound system.

If, for instance, Al Stewart plays the Mucky Duck or the Cactus Cafe and he decides to dig deep into his catalog for most of the songs, I think that's just swell. He's playing a small venue for mostly die-hard fans who paid $25 or $30 per ticket to see the show.

But if you're a big name group playing what looked to be about a 5000 seat arena at roughly a hundred bucks a ticket, I think you have an obligation to play the stuff even casual fans came to hear. And you absolutely, positively have an obligation to make sure that the sound is done right. That part's non-negotiable. Steely Dan did neither, and I feel really ripped off.

For an alternate take on the show, click here.