The Aging Punk.013

Friday, 26 December 2008

I have definite opinions of what makes a great rock concert. Take the same things that make great rock music—energy and originality—and add one more factor: spontaneity. Ideally, the band should play a different set each night, rather than just memorizing a single list of songs. Play around with how they play their songs, not just what they play. If they play an encore, it should be an honest thing, not just another programmed part of the set. And use it to play something surprising, not just as an excuse to (finally) play those big hits. In other words, a band should challenge itself and its audience.

At least, that's what I claim to like. I saw a couple of concerts this summer, by big, classic bands —The Police and Steely Dan—which made me wonder. These were two classic bands reunited for one more tour. Two bands with a boatload of hits to draw on. Two bands with completely different attitudes towards those hits. The Police concert was all hits, all the time. Steely Dan's attitude, on the other hand, seemed to be, "Hits? What hits? We don't need no stinkin' hits!"

I can count the hits the Police didn't play on one hand. In fact, I think I only need one finger—"Synchronicity II." As for Steely Dan, I need at least both hands; they didn't play "Do It Again," "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Black Friday," "Deacon Blues" and "FM." That's not just a lot of hits to leave it out, it includes some of their most popular songs. It represents a very different notion of the purposes of a concert, and who the band is playing for. Different not just from the Police, but from most bands on the road today, especially bands of their stature.

The Police put on a thoroughly entertaining and completely predictable show. I could have written out most of their set list before I even got to the concert, right down to the four song "encore," which started with "Roxanne" and ended with "Every Breath You Take" (after which they played a real encore of "Next to You").

They did play great. They actually sounded better than any of the live recordings I have from their heyday. I heard rumors that when they first reunited a year ago, they were pretty sloppy. Not tonight. They were tight, together, and rocked hard. I was especially glad to see Andy Summers take a number of extended and innovative solos, and take them far beyond anything on their records.

Still, I would have appreciated some surprises. They did open with a lovely acoustic version of "Bring On the Night," but that was the only time they seriously messed with any of their arrangements. Otherwise, the closest they came to surprises were including "Invisible Sun" and a medley of "Voices Inside My Head" and "When the World Is Running Down…" (occasion for one of Summers' better solos). And none of that is really too surprising.

What I really would have loved to see would have been a section in the middle of the concert where they each played one selection from their respective solo work. That would have been an opportunity for something new and different.

But honestly, it would have just confused this crowd. They were there for the hits, and nothing else. I don't know the last time I heard an audience so eager to sing along on every song. More than once (more than twice) Sting just stepped back from the microphone and let the crowd do his job for him. This crowd wanted "Message in a Bottle," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," "So Lonely," and on and on. They wanted the hits, and that's what they got. And they got them in prime form.

Steely Dan, again, took the opposite approach. Regardless of who was actually in the audience, they were playing for the true Steely Dan fans. That meant people familiar with their recent work, which was heavily featured. People happy to hear album cuts such as "Aja" and "Gaucho." People who would recognize the opening instrumental as "Everyone's Gone to the Movies."

Let me be honest here, I was not that Steely Dan fan. I've barely heard any of their newer stuff, and certainly couldn't identify it when they played it. (In fact, I'm making some guesswork here, assuming anything I didn't recognize was new.) I didn't recognize that opening number; I had to look it up on the internet. So I was not the ideal audience member this night.

Further, I have my definite biases and favorites among their classic work. And my favorites were grossly underrepresented. Out of my three favorite Steely Dan albums, Can't Buy a Thrill, Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied, they played one selection (and that was the aforementioned instrumental, which I didn't even recognize). And my least favorite album, Aja (my least favorite because it is both so mellow and so overplayed) was greatly overrepresented.

But I didn't really care. (Okay, I cared a little bit. I was really looking forward to hearing what they would do with "Do It Again.") As I have mentioned here before, sometimes when you don't know the songs, you actually listen better. A familiar song triggers a sing-along reflex, at which point you stop paying attention to what's actually transpiring on stage, and start focusing on what's going on in you, ie: singing along, or experiencing some great rush of nostalgia.

In fact, as we drove to the concert I wondered if Steely Dan would be able to compete with the Police in the sing-along department. I figured not, if only because people don't know the words to Steely Dan songs as well. They know every word of Police songs; on Steely Dan songs they know the chorus. But there was never any competition; Steely Dan didn't even try. This was not a concert to sing along to, it was a concert that needed and deserved to be listened to.

As one would expect, they brought an extraordinary group of backing musicians with them (eleven in all), including a full horn section, a trio of back-up singers, and an excellent lead guitarist in Jon Harrington. The band was tight, jazzy, and filled every song with powerful solos and tasteful flourishes. It didn't matter if you knew the songs or not, the music was strong and captivating.

If I am allowed to grouse a bit, though, there was a certain sameness to much of the show. I blame this on the heavy reliance on material from Aja. Aja marked the point where their wild experimentation with styles settled and became the Steely Dan sound—a funky version of smooth jazz. Those albums I mention which were skipped over offered a much greater variety in tunes and styles.

The encore has often become the moment of truth in concerts today, the moment when the band truly reveals whether they are pandering or playing honestly. Steely Dan were not pandering. I figured, okay, now's the time they throw in all the missing hits. But no, instead of "Do It Again" or "Rikki…", they played my absolute favorite tune ("Don't Take Me Alive"), which is, nonetheless, not one of their huge hits. Then "Kid Charlemagne," and then they left the band to finish things off with another instrumental number while the house lights came up.

I did some internet research on other shows on this tour, and found that, as I expected (and hoped), they did mix up their set list from show to show. Many of the songs I missed did get played elsewhere (though I never found any mention of a performance of "Rikki…" anywhere). But every review I read mentioned how many hits they left out, how much they focused on lesser known songs and hardcore fan favorites.

So, which concert did I enjoy more? Well, that's complicated.

On a basic level, the level of pure pleasure, I would have to admit I enjoyed the Police more. There is a thrill to hearing familiar songs. I can attempt to excuse this by saying that, had Steely Dan played a few more of my favorites (and a few less of my non-favorites), they would have come out on top. Yet I'm still going against my main premise, that the better concert is the one that challenges me as a listener.

I can say that I appreciated the Steely Dan concert more. And I certainly listened to it closer. Its pleasures weren't as quick or easy, they were deeper.

In the end, the two concerts were very different events. The two bands did not just have different attitudes towards what to play, they had very different ideas of what kind of experience their concert should be. The Police concert was a communal event, a group celebration of the band, of their hits, and of the fans' fandom.

The Steely Dan concert, on the other hand, was very much a musical performance. The point was the music, and the fans could take it or leave it as they chose. I almost want to say the fans were irrelevant, but that's not quite the case. Steely Dan just met the fans on the band's own terms. They didn't celebrate their fans, but they did honor them by assuming they were capable of listening and enjoying a prime musical show.

If I take both concerts on those terms, they were both very successful. I got the experience each of them was trying to give me. But it certainly took more work at the Steely Dan show.

G. Murray Thomas writes and performs poetry because he can't sing. He can be found at


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