Tuesday, 2 July 2013
Steely Dan Country...
04 April 2013
Stephen Vincent O'Rourke
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter was a vital ingredient in the early Steely Dan mix. A multi-talented work horse, Baxter brought life to Steely Dan’s early concert appearances handling lead guitar, pedal steel guitar, vocals and even percussion with equal flare. A verbose and humourous stage presence Baxter’s onstage banter with Fagen brought levity to a Steely Dan show that usually never even paused between songs.
By the time of his official membership in Steely Dan in 1971 Baxter had already logged many sessions with producer Gary Katz, who knew his capabilities and played to his strengths. Katz first enlisted Baxter at 1970 MGM sessions for singer Linda Hoover’s debut album, which was never released. Other early Baxter sessions included work with John Henry Kurtz and the popular ABC act Cashman & West.
Hard Rock Country
Having such a prominent pedal steel player in the band actually caused a bit of controversy for Fagen and Becker (or their record company) and in some their early press releases an effort was made to ensure that people knew that
a) the name “Steely Dan” had nothing to do with there being a pedal steel guitarist in the band and
b) Steely Dan was not a country band.
This didn’t top reviewers from calling them a competent “folk-rock outfit” or even a band that played “hard rock country.”
A Steely Dan Folk Rock Compilation
Dirty Work (1972) A cross between Crosby,Stills and Nash and Carole King…a hit single in France…go figure
Pearl Of the Quarter (1973)- Wonderful lyrics and a dry New Orleans vocal from Fagen (and either Michael Fenelly or David Palmer on backing vocal)…the keyboards and pedal steel are perfect and transport you to the wonderful respite of a swampy hotel.
With A Gun (1974)- Move over Eagles…there’s a new kid in town….an epic tale of a desperado who gets caught with his fingers in the till. Acoustic guitars echo the Beatles from Rubber Soul era.
Turn That Heartbeat Over Again (1972) Perhaps the most rustic of all of Steely Dan’s acid folk;’Heartbeat’ gives us a good idea of what an alternative ‘Dan might have sounded like. The vocals of Palmer, Fagen and Becker are mixed well and instrumentation has been recorded perfectly…as usual. Thank you Mr. Nichols
King of the World (1973) Even though the world has ended we still want to be with Steely Dan..drinking tequila…with an old ham radio. Dias and Baxter take guitar playing to Burroughsian heights in this ode to a post apocalypse Southwest.
Any Major Dude Will Tell You (1974) An odd beatnikish lyric is combined with a stunning upstate pedal steel. Skunk was a vital member of the original Steely mystique…once he left an era ended.
Dallas (1972) Although Becker & Fagen hated this track it is a favourite of many a “Dan fan. Featuring drummer Jimmy Hodder on lead vocals ‘Dallas’ has an odd lyric that somehow seems to be alluding to the JFK Assassination Later covered by none other then Timothy B. Schmitt when he was in Poco.
Giles of the River- John Kay (1973) Similar to ‘Dallas’ this is a pleasant country western track, sung perfectly by ex-Steppenwolf leader John Kay.
Canyon Ladies- Navasota (1972) Hard country rock track that features Skunk and Fagen. Produced by Gary Katz when he was known as Gary Kannon.
American Lovers- Thomas Jefferson Kaye (1974) Haunting sentimental ode to the counter-cullture, sung by legendary persona Tommy Kaye who was recording with ex-Byrd Gene Clarke around the same time. Finally performed by Steely Dan at a 2011 concert. Weird.
Reelin’ In the Years (1972) An American classic….great lyrics, great vocals..super great guitar…later infamously covered by Donnie and Marie Osmond...
The evolution of Steely Dan away from their folk sound was more or less a natural one as Becker & Fagen began incorporating more jazz and funk sounds as the 1970′s went on. By 1976 the shift was complete as ace session players like Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey pounded out some of the coolest urban pop yet heard in the decade. Folk rock as exemplified by the ‘Dan was abandoned unceremoniously when the last smokebombs of the 1974 tour disipated. No more pedal steel, no more acoustic guitar…Steely Dan had left their California grass days for the bliss of grapefruit wine.
Fringe ‘Dan: The Tommy Kaye albums
A side project of Steely Dan producer was the singer-songwriter Thomas Jefferson Kaye who issued two albums for ABC Records in the early 70′s. Kaye had a versatile voice and could cover boogie and folk pop with equal stamina. At times Katz would enlist various Steely Dan personnel for the Kaye album while Fagen and Becker composed several songs.
‘American Lovers’, which appeared on Kaye’s 1974 album ‘First Grade’, is seen by some as a lost Steely Dan track, reminiscent of their David Palmer era sound. The hippie-esque lyrics, which Fagen noted when he performed the song in concert in 2011 were “five years too late”, seemed to verbalize a sentiment felt by smart eastcoast liberals and the song became a favorite of Village Voice critic Robert Christgau who gave the album an A- rating.