On March 12, 2015, I witnessed a cover band evolve into an original headliner.
For over three hours, the hard-rockin’ Steely Dan tribute band gave the packed crowd what it wanted to hear and dance to. And then some. At times, they sounded just like the original Donald Fagen/Walter Becker ’70s legends. At others, at least for three specific, outstanding tunes (“Green Earring,” “Aja,” and “Do It Again”), they surpassed the originals.
Just as I did with the Robben Ford Jazz Alley concert several months ago, here’s my blow-by-blow account, as it happened:
8:57 p.m. The band takes the stage and plays a medley of brief melodies (arranged by horn player Jack Klitzman) from their most recognizable hits, before launching into one of their most famous, “Reelin’ In The Years.” At once, I felt the horns folding into the rest of the melodies from the other instruments and the singers, in waves. Even the bass (Jeff Volkman), which almost always gets forgotten in the back.
“FM” — I love the harmonies in the backup vocals on this. They gave their own spin in the choral repeat, with “no static, no static at all” trailing at the end. Nice touch.
At this point lead backup vocalist Becca Atterberry welcomes the audience — it’s a full house, with a lot of stragglers standing and straining for a closer view — and explains the evening’s set-up. The first half is “Aja,” the album, the second is audience choice. Everybody at a table was given a slip listing all the Steely Dan songs the band has charts for. We’re to select the faves we want to hear in order of preference, 1–2–3. She directs us to turn in our ballots to her mom, Margaret, for counting.
“Time Out Of Mind” — Where’s the video that’s supposed to play during this first half? Oh, there. But it’s not playing anything yet. I suddenly notice I really like the poetic, mysterious, vaguely hip lyrics of this song, “Tonight when I chase the dragon | The water will change to cherry wine | And the silver will turn to gold…” I could hear every word of the song too, from the vocalists, which is rare in a small, intimate club with the guitars blaring overhead. Oh, Becca’s doing the robot, then raising her fingers up to cue the other singers on the approaching end. They have to use these types of cues a lot on Steely Dan tunes, which have odd, often abrupt endings.
“New Frontier” — I never cared for this song when it first hit the MTV airwaves, so I barely pay attention to it now. I watch the young and lovely Kelly Ash move softly to the music (Sue Nixon called in sick), in her shiny black leggings and oversized, ruffled purple tunic. Runners’ legs. Mike McGee embellishes on the guitar.
“Green Earring” — How do you dance to this? Yet, people are dancing like fools on the dance floor left of the stage. Even the Hustle. Looks like Studio 54 over there. This is Steely Dan, right? Former member of acapella vocal band M-Pact, Carl Kelley, is booging down to the music up there, watching drummer Bryon Atterberry appreciatively. It’s a good sign when the band members themselves are getting into their live music. Heading toward the finish line, the music starts to sound frantic, keys and notes falling over themselves in a mad rush in a mad deadline, when McGee inserts some hard electric guitar all over the premises, prompting lead singer Galen Green to remark, “Unmitigated shredding,” at the song’s conclusion. The combination of rock and jazz licks from the guitars and the horns made this song one of my favorites of the night.
Green jokes around with the audience about the audience request slips, asking that nobody request them to “take lessons” or “turn it down,” but vote. Then, Becca chimes in with a joke of her own, “We are not doing ‘Disco Inferno,’ so don’t put it down.”
Her drummer husband Bryon is fiddling with the computer up there, controlling the video montage, having a bit of trouble, so she has to fill. A couple of partiers to the right of me, in their group, are whoopin’ it up. Backup vocalist Kelley smiles their way and kids, “Do we got some belligerent people in the house?” More roars.
“Black Cow” — This is the song for the singers to make or ruin. I’m afraid in this case, the singers are coming off short, clipped, and weak compared to the original, textured Steely Dan version. There should be so much said in the tossing out of the song’s signature goodbye, “so outrageous,” but in these singers’ voices, it’s coming off lukewarm. The night’s young.
“Aja” — Here we go. Time to see what Bryon Atterberry’s done with the drum solos since his last fall gig here. Before he gets to it, I hear Becca’s vocals strengthening Galen Green’s, which is necessary because the rest of us in the crowd notice that the guitars especially are so overwhelmingly loud, they threaten to drown his voice out. “Aja” has more than one drum solo, technically; a chance for the drummer to really build up the climax with his foreplay and Bryon does it teasingly, sparingly. He holds back this time. His sister Sheila — here with her husband and friends — comes over to wax proud, she’s been crying with happiness for him.
I wait, expectantly. And am richly rewarded when Bryon throws his hardware down, powerfully, exactingly and at the right moments to punctuate a mood that isn’t so much frenetic and Latin like before at previous gigs. It’s a more somber mood, and he patiently uses the pauses well, holding back, taking his time, instead of filling the gaps up as much as possible. Toward the end of this last solo, he almost loses his way, almost, but with a signature flourish in such a finite space, he makes his bold point and leaves us gaping. One hundred percent improved.
“Deacon Blues” — Now I notice the video running its images. Galen Green’s voice needs to come up more amidst so much sound. This is his weakest song. But to be fair, it’s difficult for any accomplished singer to pull off with its intricate, almost painful melodic turns.
“Peg” — Suddenly, the energy goes way up. It’s that kind of song. The backup vocalists are dancing back and forth as usual but it’s making me either seasick or hypnotizing me. My friend buys me a drink, the Duck Fart — loaded with chocolatey booze. That could be part of my problem seeing straight. Gosh, the dance floor is jammed! Smooth guitar solo cover, Art Bromage. He lays the notes lower than the original, it works.
We’re entering the second side of the “Aja” album, singer Galen Green says. “If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re not very cool.” Feedback. Cue keyboardist Ed Weber looking pissed. Musicians hate feedback. Backup singer Carl Kelley has moved his mic slightly away from the others to help.
“Home At Last” — Photo time. I move around closer to the stage, risking the wrath of the seated customers, to gain a better shot but wishing McGee’s photographer friend Dave Bristol were here. (Am I ever gonna meet the guy in person?) Whoa, I just saw a member of the Village People, the biker dude, a lookalike. This song has an oddly memorable, offbeat six-measure beat, which Becca beats to on Green’s arm.
“Josie” — I am seated in front of the stage, but behind the people seated right up there. There’s an path in front of our line of tables, so people are walking by left and right, intermittently, constantly blocking my view. Oh look, fans are taking pictures of themselves in front of the video screen. I keep expecting the backup singers to make praying hands in the chorus, Kelly Ash almost does.
“Do It Again” — Of all the songs Nearly Dan does, this is the one they should release on CD. It’s less a Steely Dan remake and more their own concoction, liberally splashed with Cuban-Latin flair. As the horn section blankets the entire club with its Cuban mojo, I feel as if I am literally being transported to that forgotten city. The drums, the horns, the guitars, the keyboards, oh! the vocals doing their Spanish dance, all contributes to the big band magic. I so love this version way better. Klitzman provided the ever-evolving arrangements to his band’s unique, captivating version. After the show, I spoke with him and my husband about it. They both told me he’d been futzing with the arrangement a lot, but Jack added he’s done, this is it. It’s fabulous.
A break before the second half’s “We’re countin’ ’em down!” My husband tells me that the band’s video, filmed back at their Triple Door gig, is finally done. They just have to watch it, then pass it around to those that can enable them to get more gigs, like a demo. I suggest a live concert CD to him and Becca. They say something about Steely Dan (copyright?) and money. Do they know about Nearly Dan-UK’s CDs?
#12 “Don’t Take Me Alive.” No comment.
#11 “The Fez.” Really? I hate that nonsensical song. But sax guy Rich Cole does a nice job replicating the weirdness on his flute. Becca and Carl Kelley augment with their percussive instruments. How do they sing and shake at the same time? Oh. They don’t.
#10 “Black Friday.” Guitars rule. Galen Green raises his hand to motion the horns to come in. Did they come in too early? Cole looks amused. They’re rockin’ the blues here. More people come in.
#9 “Sign In Stranger.” Never heard of this song. Obscure. I can only catch “yellow fever” and “zombie.” Google to the rescue. It has a grooving, loping reggae feel. I keep thinking, Haitian divorce. Here comes my husband on the keyboards, with his discordant jazzing, like pulling meat from bone.
#8 “Pretzel Logic.” A man in the audience guessed #8 correctly, to which Becca said, get that guy a beer. In this one, Green steps up as Donald Fagen’s twin, twanging in all the right places, as Becca supports him underneath the notes. Guitarist Art Bromage thrashed it out, as Green observed, “Those were very fast notes, Art.”
#7 “Bodhisattva.” I will always think of the late Tim Garon, Nearly Dan’s original front man, when this song comes on. It was so a part of his style. Galen Green and Carl Kelley duet on it. Ed Weber’s smiling and rocking back and forth at the keyboard. Now the band’s fully relaxed. (They told me later that the musicians, especially drummer to keys, really connected during the second half and after a few drinks to relax.) Andy Omdahl expertly hits those impossibly high high notes on trumpet for the end.
#6 “Hey 19.” Groan. Another song I hate. Who’s voting on these? Bye-bye horns, it’s keyboard time. That’s the problem. The keys, as they’re written, sound too wha-wha-wonky to me. Suddenly, a blonde jumps up onstage to dance and hang on for dear life to backup vocalist Carl Kelley, who kindly plays along. We find out later that that was not his friend, but a complete stranger. Nearly Dan has groupies? Another unruly blonde stands up, up in front waving herself around. Becca wraps up the song by observing wryly that some audience members had a little too much of the “Cuervo Gold.”
#5 “Kid Charlemagne.” Is it me, or does Galen sound more like Fagen as the evening wears on?
#4 “Dirty Work.” As much as we miss Sue Nixon on this tune, it’s her tune, Becca Atterberry and Kelly Ash take over ably. A male fan rushes over to plant himself directly in front of me and my friend to ogle, and annoy me. My friend, who’s a blues singer, comments to me that they’re hitting the contralto lows that she usually does.
#3 “Rikki/Ricky.” It’s a party!
They interrupt the countdown to oblige the band request of “Maxine,” featuring the horn section and lead singer Galen Green on sax. Becca says, hey notice the band chooses an instrumental that doesn’t need the singers? “We’re secure in ourselves,” she riffs, while introducing Green as such a multi-talent, singer, musician, songwriter, and how lucky they are to have him. A wise guy from the audience yells out, “Free sax!” Becca quips back, “You are cut off, dude.”
#2 “Babylon Sisters.” I win. I bet my friend Christina which song would make it to #1, and she thought this one would. Besides “Aja,” I listened to “Babylon Sisters” an awful lot on my iPod while out walking. The backup singers are giving it their all. I can hear them putting their own gruff, sassy twist at the end of their choruses. Remarkably similar to the original Steely Dan song.
#1 “My Old School.” Just as I predicted. It’s everybody’s all-time favorite. Galen Green jokes with the crowd that they did this to themselves, choosing this song as #1, now forget about hearing it for the encore (there is no encore planned). Becca gets in on the act, asking how many votes the song received. We hear 200. “200?” she asks incredulously, then as someone else corrects it with 20, she’s like, sorry, feels like “I’m in Key Arena” instead of Hwy 99. They rocked it out, having a blast.
Show over. The guys behind me start in on an impromptu review. One of them had just wandered in with his girl on a whim, pleasantly surprised. He says, “They’re outstanding,” planning to come next time. The other one, a Nearly Dan fan, mentioned their Jazz Alley gig last June, full of high praise and, well, love.
Review first appeared in Examiner May 5, 2015.