Seattle tribute band reinvents Steely Dan classics live at Triple Door
Attempting to perform any Steely Dan hit, much less an entire album’s worth, might seem foolhardy for even the most seasoned music professional. But something special, innovative, and, well, daring, is happening in the Seattle area right now with a group of musicians and singers belonging to the Nearly Dan tribute band.
They are co-founder/horns Jack Klitzman, co-founder/keys Ed Weber, drummer Bryon Atterberry, guitarists Michael McGee and Art Bromage, saxophonist Richard Cole, trumpeter Andy Omdahl, bassist Jeff Volkman, and vocalists Galen Green, Becca Atterberry, Sue Nixon, Kelly Ash, and Carl Kelley. Individually, they each have their own jams going on, some juggling the life of a gigging musician and a 9-to-5. Together, these devout Steely Dan fans have managed to both master — note for note — the original tunes, while putting their own creative, inventive spin.
While many in the music industry have categorized Steely Dan’s jazz-influenced, offbeat American rock-pop as incomprehensible, not very danceable, too complex for the average listener, and just plain weird (ever hear “The Fez?”), Nearly Dan’s members aren’t so closed-minded. In the right hands, Steely Dan’s music can be accessible, fun, a little crazy, and yes, melodic.
Somehow, through equal parts hard work, lots of practice at home and on the road, as much rehearsal as busy schedules will allow, and just plain knowing what they’re doing (otherwise known as chops), this tribute band has somehow risen above the crowds to produce a strange, new, fascinating, utterly compelling hybrid of music.
Drummer Bryon Atterberry took some time out of his own busy schedule preparing for the band’s upcoming Triple Door concert to try and describe Nearly Dan’s efforts at doing more than copying one of their musical heroes. “To most of us, the idea of paying tribute to something or someone would be to take the songs and perform them in our way, with our sound, and our arrangements,” he said. “It shows that we are massively inspired by what they originally created, so we are now going to take it in a different direction. I would like to think that [Walter] Becker and [Donald] Fagen would respect this approach more than merely imitating the studio cuts. Yes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but most musicians of Becker and Fagen’s ilk would respect our approach even more. They would be like, ‘OK… great, so you can copy our licks. Now, let’s hear what you can play.’”
Man oh man!, can they play. It’s kind of amazing, considering the current Seattle incarnation only truly began taking off about two years ago. (The original tribute band was formed by the late musician Tim Garon in Hawaii, with a subsequent sequel in Seattle around 2001 that failed to get off the ground.) In that short a time, Nearly Dan has effectively come together with a magical mix of 13 (14, if you include sound engineer Steve Dooley) uber-talented musicians and singers — all committed to taking time out of their busy schedules on paying gigs and 9-to-5 jobs, some with full families to take care of,… to rehearse semi-weekly for a chance to perform here and there. (Btw, of the 13 band members mentioned, four were in the original Seattle incarnation: Weber, Volkman, Bryon and Becca Atterberry.)
These musicians and singers aren’t fly-by-night amateurs trying out for “American Idol,” either. They’ve exercised their tremendous chops with some of the best acts in the biz. Get a load of some of the legends they’ve played with: George Benson, Diane Schuur, Roberta Flack, Gladys Knight, Huey Lewis, Tower of Power, Ray Charles, the Four Tops and the Temptations, Tito Puente, Sammy Davis Jr., and Natalie Cole.
The Nearly Dan tribute band members have also managed to pick up quite an impressive resume of varied venues, from The EMP, Tacoma’s Jazzbones, Issaquah’s summer Concerts on the Green, and a Fourth of July Celebration with KWJZ on the Tacoma waterfront, to downtown Seattle’s Highway 99 Blues Club, Triple Door and, in an unprecedented move up to the big-time, Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley this past June, where only the crème de la crème of jazz and blues performers appear. That’s also when special guest musician Pete Christlieb — the very man who provided the sax solo to Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues,” as well as “FM” — joined the band onstage.
For such a relatively new tribute band, Nearly Dan has already amassed quite a devoted following bordering on cult status, including hardcore Steely Dan fans from the 1970s, as well as jazz, funk, blues and soul aficionados.
“Becker and Fagen used all the top studio players from New York to L.A. to produce these albums, so each player in the band gets to emulate their heroes by playing music that isn’t obscure, avant-garde jazz (performed to a crowd of five in a snobby lounge). … And, the music provides a little something for everyone — harmonically, rhythmically, melodically, vocally, and a great platform for improv.”
Then, there’s a category of fan that defies labels. These fans have locked in on a strange, new hybrid of music that’s come from Nearly Dan’s organic collaborative efforts, more tribute than copycat, requiring a little something extra, above and beyond, building on the original’s “intelligent pop with incredible groove and nuance,” as drummer Bryon Atterberry described Steely Dan’s stylistic launching pad. “We have only recently ventured into this area of infusing our original content, but most of the future songs that we will add to our set list will be more unique. One important reason for this is that we want people to come out and experience something slightly different every time they see us. We only play in the area once a month or every other month, so we don’t burn ourselves and our audience out.”
This Sunday, September 20, 2009, starting at 6 p.m., Nearly Dan will headline at Triple Door on 216 Union Street in downtown Seattle (206–838–4333). The concert will be filmed live, and will feature a special video montage during the set. The video montage from Melegorm’s YouTube Channel (he’s since moved his stuff to Vimeo.com due to copyright issues) features images of Steely Dan, and some odds and ends, and will sync up with the band’s music set list for the scheduled performance. “This will create a stunning visual and auditory experience,” Bryon enthused. “The Triple Door has great sound, lighting, food and vibe. We like to pull out all the stops when we perform there.”
Besides the video montage, Nearly Dan will also have a videographer from Mind|Castle on the premises to film the entire show for the band’s website and promotional purposes, kind of like a music video. “So our fans can come and perhaps be included in the footage (hopefully without food falling out of their mouths!),” Bryon said. “We might even start a song over if there are any technical glitches — which could either be cool and relaxing — or a total train wreck!” Cost is $15 at the door, online or by phone. Doors open at 4 p.m. on that day, on a first-come-first-served basis.
And, in an odd bit of serendipity, the original Steely Dan band comes to Seattle on October 12–13 to kick off their fall “Rent Party ‘09” semi-national tour, to San Jose and San Francisco, and then Phoenix, before ending on November 8 in Minneapolis. They plan to perform an entire past studio album for their fans, in addition to other songs they’ve done in their illustrious career. The media have noted that this has been the band’s fourth continuous tour run, quite a departure from their usual years-long-MIA status from before.
After all is said and done, what’s in it for Seattle’s top Steely Dan tribute band? There’s not much instant gratification in terms of lucrative pay. There’s more rehearsing and fine-tuning than there is the fame of selling out stadiums. And let’s face it, Steely Dan isn’t a Taylor Swift or a Kanye West. Drummer Bryon Atterberry confidently spoke for his fellow cohorts by pointing to the music, baby, the music. It can be demanding, intelligent, intricate, impeccable in groove even, but “it’s very gratifying and challenging” to pull off, he explained. “Becker and Fagen used all the top studio players from New York to L.A. to produce these albums, so each player in the band gets to emulate their heroes by playing music that isn’t obscure, avant-garde jazz (performed to a crowd of five in a snobby lounge). … And, the music provides a little something for everyone — harmonically, rhythmically, melodically, vocally, and a great platform for improv.”
Review first appeared in Examiner Aug. 27, 2015.