Few could have predicted a day when Steely Dan would have qualified as road dogs.
The group, led by the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, famously eschewed the rock 'n' roll road in the mid-'70s, preferring to hunker down in the studio, meticulously crafting hybrid pop-jazz masterworks such as "The Royal Scam" and "Aja." But since reuniting for the 1992 New York Rock & Soul Revue tour and then resurrecting Steely Dan as a performing entity a year later, Becker and Fagen have taken the band out at regular intervals, irregardless of whether there's a new album to promote.
Last year they were out with '70s band member Michael McDonald. This year, in addition to North America, Steely Dan will play in Japan as well as its first shows ever in Australia and New Zealand.
"It's just so much fun," notes guitarist Becker, 57, a Queens, N.Y., native who met Fagen when both attended Bard College in upstate New York in the mid-`60s.
"We've got a great band, and we've got interesting music. We've got enough music to play so we don't have to repeat ourselves. There's no song we [i]have[/i] to play every night. I think [i]that's[/i] what kills it for a lot of people; it becomes sort of mechanical."
That wasn't what steered Steely Dan away from the road more than 30 years ago, however. Despite early hits such as "Do it Again," "Reelin' in the Years" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," Becker and Fagen found touring to be a dissatisfying chore. They loathed the travel, particularly when routing would have them hopping from one side of the country to the other at any given point.
The production standards, especially sound, were also an issue. "The control that we had over presenting our music was pretty hit and mess," Becker notes.
With technological improvements, however, he says that "they've got it to the point where it sounds pretty good every night. It's just more consistent, and the band sounds good every night now, which was not really the case in the '70s."
And, Becker adds, it helps that he and Fagen have put together a 10-piece band that's stayed consistent in recent years, including guitarist Jon Herington, keyboardist Jeff Young, drummer Keith Carlock and a four-piece horn section.
"We've always been like that, really," explains Becker, who has produced records for Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks, China Crisis, Krishna Das and others. "Even in the '70s, when we found somebody who really worked well, we stuck with them pretty consistently -- for example, Chuck Rainey, who played bass on almost every Steely Dan record after I heard him play the first time.
"We still do that. When we find somebody that fist in well, we stick with him. Or her."
Taking Steely Dan on the road, of course, ultimately led to Becker and Fagen -- who named the group after a sexual device in the William Burroughs novel "Naked Lunch" -- taking the group back into the studio. 2000's "Two Against Nature," their first Steely Dan album in 20 years, won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. "Everything Must Go" debuted in the Billboard Top 10 in 2003.
There's no talk yet about a next Steely Dan album, however. Fagen released his third solo album, "Morph the Cat," last year and will release a compilation of his solo work, "The Donald Fagen Trilogy Collection," in July. Becker, meanwhile, has "pretty much finished" his second solo album that he says will "come out hopefully some time during my lifetime" -- probably next year.
But what the duo will do next as Steely Dan is up in the air at this point.
"We're pretty much preoccupied with what we're doing at this point, which is the shows," Becker says. "This is obviously a very unsettled time in the record business. Five minutes into the future is completely unknown in our business at this point.
"So you can easily just thing more in terms of live performance these days. We can be pretty certain of what we're doing in that arena, you know?"
Steely Dan performs at 8 p.m. Monday (June 4th) at the Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, 14900 Metropolitan Parkway at Schoenherr Road, Sterling Heights. Tickets are $79.50 and $59.50 pavilion, $25 lawn. Call (586) 268-5100 or visit www.freedomhill.net.
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