I don’t hate Steely Dan.
I think they’re fine musicians who make well-crafted music with clever lyrics. And I think they put on a show at the Clay Center Tuesday night that should have pleased their loyal fans. I do not wish the members of the band any ill will.
I just hate their music.
I don’t really understand why I hate their music. It’s intelligent, witty and very well played, and it contains many individual elements that I normally find quite appealing.
Perhaps it’s some sort of Pavlovian response that makes me hate their music. Their formula harmonies kick in and I get a little gag reflex. I associate their music with the morning drive to high school. Except for my brief disastrous marriage, my high school years were the most miserable period of my life. Music that transports me back to that time is basically transporting me back to hell.
Maybe it’s just a perfect storm of different musical elements that I normally like, arranged in a manner that bothers the hell out of me.
Or it could be that, back in the old days when I didn’t have a tape deck in my car…actually I didn’t have a car yet…and I was at the mercy of FM radio, I was held hostage listening to music that I didn’t like in order to hear the one track every hour or two by one of my favorite bands. So while I’m tuned in hoping to hear something by YES, The Who or The Beatles (pretty much every other favorite band of mine was years away from getting any airplay) I would be subjected to Steely Dan or The Eagles or Jimmy Buffett or Aerosmith or The Doobie Brothers or Boston or any of the other top AOR tracks of the day.
To this day, that music actually makes me physically ill. I get the same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I used to get every day going to high school. I know there are some people who love the music of “Yacht Rock.” I would like to see those yachts sunk. Those bands are like Nickleback to me.
Given that, you may be wondering why I found myself at the Clay Center, perched in a third-level box, enduring Steely Dan’s concert Tuesday night. It’s a fair question, and I will give you the answer in a moment.
But first, my observations:
The Clay Center was packed. I’d never seen the crowd from the cool vantage point we had way up in a box on the third level before, and since I was way more interested in people-watching than hearing Steely Dan, I was very happy with our seats. The main floor was a sea of bald heads with pony tails, and at any given moment during the show, forty or fifty iPhones were fully illuminated, probably illegally recording the concert.
The median age of the crowd seemed to be mid-fifties. I would say the vast majority of concert-goers were old enough to have been fans of the band since the 1970s. The Clay Center was probably breathing a sigh of relief that they don’t offer discounts to AARP members.
Steely Dan’s music was way too loud. It was like the sound guy had the levels set at “Outdoor Festival” instead of “Intimate Performance Hall.” We were, unfortunately, right at speaker level, so the music was more than a little painful to listen to. At one point I did something that I never do. I leaned over and asked Melanie if she had brought any earplugs. Understand that I never wear earplugs when I’m recording RFC. I don’t function well with them, and get along fine without them. For me to ask for earplugs means that the music is dangerously, obnoxiously loud. Seriously, it was so loud that it kept waking me up.
At one point it was so painful that I had to excuse myself to the bathroom for about ten minutes. The Clay Center thoughtfully pumped the sound from the hall into the restrooms, so that die-hard fans with weak bladders (probably a good percentage of them) could still hear the music. That’s when I discovered that the sound mix was actually spectacular. You could hear every instrument and the vocals were right where they should be. Even though I still hated the music, the mix was fantastic. Without the flesh-ripping volume, it was a really great job. In fact, if you just wanted to go hear the band perform live, and didn’t care about actually watching them, the crapper was the best seat in the house!
And let’s be honest, who goes to a Steely Dan concert to SEE the band? The group has always been a fairly anonymous group of shlubs who could walk down the street without ever being recognized. There’s like three regulars at The Empty Glass who could pass for Walter Becker, and there’s a Donald Fagan look-alike lurking in every other Starbucks in the country. That’s why the band broke up during the height of MTV. Who would want to watch a video of those guys? They’re the radio stars that video tried to kill.
Getting to the show itself, the opening act, The Sam Yahel Organ Trio, impressed many people. I wasn’t among them. He got off to a good start with a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” but I was underwhelmed by his playing. He reminded me of the guy who used to play the demo organ at The Pied Piper in the Huntington Mall. He had a great rhythm section, though. He didn’t play songs that nearly induced vomiting in me, so that was another plus. My take was that he was grossly unremarkable, but was probably told not to be too great so that he wouldn’t show up the headliner.
A lot of folks admit that it was too loud. Some blame the mix instead of the volume, but there seems to be a consensus that maybe they shouldn’t have turned the speakers up to eleven. It’s possible to create a sound footprint in the Clay Center that gives great audio to every seat in the house. By cranking it up, these guys really blew it for a lot of fans.
Some of my friends are raving about the horn section, which I found to be sloppy and uninspired. I saw Frank Zappa’s band in 1988, with a horn section that included Walt Fowler, Bruce Fowler, Paul Carman, Albert Wing and Kurt McGettrick. None of the horn players on stage with Steely Dan were fit to empty those guys’ spit valves. The discordant horns combined with the ridiculously high volume made for a very physically challenging show. At times the horn section was like a sonic chainsaw, cleaving through your skull.
The guitarist, Jon Herington, was amazing. You will get no argument from me, there. At times he’d rip out a solo that was so good that it made me forget how much I hated the song they were playing.
The drummer, Keith Carlock, cracked me up. It was like he was trying to recreate The Mad Drummer, Steve Moore’s, act from the famous YouTube clip “This Drummer Is At The Wrong Gig.” (By the way, Steve Moore will be in South Charleston during Summerfest on August 19, playing with Rick K and The Allnighters, with Rubber Soul opening.) Aside from probably being the youngest person in the building, Carlock seemed at times to be trying to drown out the awful music that was being played on stage around him. I appreciated that.
And yes, I said “awful music.” It was awful to me. I knew going in that I was not going to enjoy hearing those songs. I had the kind of trepidation that you get about a trip to the dentist. And I was rewarded with much of the same kind of music.
So you want to know why I went, if I hated the band’s music so much.
I mentioned that I went with “Melanie.” Long-time readers of PopCult probably know that I’m talking about Melanie Larch, my significant other for more than two decades, and the person who restored my faith in humanity. Melanie loves Steely Dan. They are one of her favorite bands. My Melanie has had a bad year. Her mother passed away six months ago, and there have been a lot of adjustments for her deal with since then.
She knows how much I despise the music of Steely Dan. One of the keys to having a long-lasting relationship is to not take it as an insult when your partner likes something that you don’t, and vice-verse. When The Clay Center announced that Steely Dan was coming, I told Mel that I would go with her. It’s been 18 years or so since I took her to see “Cats” at The Charleston Civic Center, and I hate that musical way more than I hate Steely Dan’s music, and I didn’t want her to have to go see Steely Dan alone.
I had an ulterior motive though. See, I got to watch my Melanie light up as she recognized the first few notes of every crappy song the band played. She was bopping in her seat, singing along, grinning from ear-to-ear the entire night. I got to see her that happy, and that was the best show of the night for me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I would sit through the worst, most awful music in the world for a chance to see the woman I love be that happy.
And I did. And it was worth it.
I feel a little guilty about taking a seat away from someone who actually likes those horrible songs, but not much. I got to spend time with my girl, and afterward we got to hang out at IHOP with Kevin Pauley, of The No Pants Players (who are doing an adults-only show at The Alban Theater this Saturday). Kevin knows of my distaste for Steely Dan’s music and was amazed to see me at the concert. He lucked into a terrific seat and, as a fan, enjoyed every minute of that horrible, horrible music. I was very happy for him, too.
I’m glad that the die-hard fans were pleased with the show. I was happy to see such an enthusiastic standing ovation for the band, since I was concerned that many of their fans would have trouble standing that long. I wish the volume hadn’t been so loud. I thought the stage banter was overly long, but the fans liked it. In the end, I’m glad I went to the concert. It was worth every penny to see Melanie that happy.
Thank God she doesn’t care too much for Mahler. That’s a whole different story.
The Clay Center
It was great to get to hear a name band playing at The Clay Center. It’s wonderful to see the Symphony there, but it’s nice to see such a cool performance space used for other musical performances, too. The Charleston Light Opera Guild is doing “Hairspray” there this weekend, and there are some interesting acts lined up for the coming months.
Sadly, I don’t see The Clay Center booking any bands that I would love to see, like DEVO, The Aquabats, The Keith Emerson Band, or even Ringo’s All-Starrs, but Steely Dan is a step in the right direction. At least they are a name band, even if they are thirty years past their peak.
It’s a great venue. My only fear is that, if the lame, sedate, Steely Dan, brings in fans so rowdy that they have to be kicked out for alcohol and urine-related offenses, The Clay Center might be too spooked to book an act that would bring in an even younger crowd.
But The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra brings in a younger crowd than Steely Dan did, so maybe it’s not the age that matters. I guess “The Dan” is just too hardcore for a classy performance hall. We did see Kevin throwing up The Devil’s Horns during the encore.
Hanging Around With Friends
Wednesday I headed down the road with Lee Harrah to White Sulphur Springs to shoot a cameo in Eamon Hardiman’s new movie, “Porkchops.” It was a fun evening, and I don’t want to give away too much about the film, but here are some pictures from the set.
Friday night at 10 PM, RFC faves, The Nanker Phelge, open for RFC fave, Rubber Soul, with the usual affordable Empty Glass cover charge. WV’s Favorite Beatle Tribute band Rubber soul return to the glass along with Charlestons favorite Garage band The nanker Phelge Opening!! Yay!
Saturday night It’s time for some more Adult-themed insanity! That’s right, the No Pants Players are back with another round of adult-oriented improv! Let’s go to the press release!
“Now, what does “adult-oriented” mean? Well, that’s up to you as the audience! This show will contain adult language and situations, but sorry folks! No nudity other than our beautifully shapedl calves! Be ready for all your favorite games, and a few new ones! Make sure to get all your ideas ready for the troupe because we are willing to take the show as far as your imagination carries us.
Tickets are $10 each at the door. The first 20 paid tickets get a free NPP wristband! Also, the troupe will have some exciting news to share about an upcoming event in Charleston!”
That’s All Folks
For this week, at least. Don’t forget to watch RFC 142 and also go see “Cupid Falling/Cupid Rising” at the WVSU Capitol Center Theater, you have two more chances to catch this hysterical comedy. PopCult returns next week with all our regular features.