The Cuervo Gold, The Fine Colombian, Make Tonight a Wonderful Thing

Donald Fagen and the Embassy Brats at Tanglewood. photo by Seth Rogovoy
Donald Fagen and the Embassy Brats with Steely Dan at Tanglewood. photo by Seth Rogovoy

The storm had passed and a soft summer light enveloped the crowd, gathering with folding chairs, bottles of wine, and anticipation for a show ahead that would bring them back 30 years to the band’s heyday.

It was a beautiful night at Tanglewood, and soon, Steely Dan would launch into Aja to begin a night of wonderful music. You don’t get to see these studio guys that often because it’s damn hard to play these complicated songs with just any band. But they brought it big time last night, with three back-up singers dubbed “The Embassy Brats,” a powerful drummer, and a four-piece horn section.

Enough to play their well-remembered songs just like on the records, except that Donald Fagen’s voice isn’t as powerful and clear from the stage.

They started by bringing out the brass–first trumpet, then alto sax, then trombone, then clarinet, each taking a short turn playing a stanza from a jazz standard, nothing at all of what would follow. It was a standard jazz number that would be a warm-up to bring them into much more familiar territory soon: “Aja, Hey Nineteen, Peg, Bodhisattva, Do It Again, My Old School”  and a rousing encore  “Reeling in the Years.”

They left out a bunch of hits, like ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,”  but they were burning brightly, playing those complex jazz-inspired notes perfectly and sounding nearly as good as in the studio.

Fagen, in his aviator shades and black suit, looked like a made man, while Becker more casual and relaxed on guitar, praising the master who he met in 1967 on the Bard College campus. “I wanted to play in a band and this guy played everything, produced records, and he was in every band.”

Later his introduction to Fagen included lauding him as a ‘gourmet cook, world traveler, and New York City resident.” Both of these reticent musical geniuses were loquacious up on stage, chatting about memories of visiting the Berkshires and how taking your date to a Steely Dan concert should just about guarantee you get laid.

I looked around the crowd and realized that with few exceptions, they were all my age…men and women to whom this band’s songs were a huge part of high school and college.  We moved close to the stage for the final song, Reeling in the Years, and felt the passion of the players, having so much fun playing songs they wrote so long ago.

It was the kind of night that makes me realize how much live music means to me, and how great players transmit their energy across the jubilant crowd, sharing the love and groove with them from the stage.