Live Review: Steely Dan with Elvis Costello at Chastain Park

Photography by Danielle Boise (full gallery and setlist at the end of the review)

Steely Dan, with Elvis Costello and The Imposters, brought their unlikely national tour to Chastian Park Amphitheater this week and conjured up a thrilling night of retro-classic rock covering hits from the late 60s through to the early 80s. The bands played solid sets of songs that the audience knew by heart, while mixing in deeper cuts. The Chastain Park audience was unusually receptive to both and completely enjoyed the show.

During the 1970s, Steely Dan was a prolific studio band that produced a cornucopia of jazz infused soft rock hits, but seldom played live. The brainchild of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, the band usually did not have a solid lineup, but would work with various musicians and singers. In recent years, the boys have gotten an act together and have been taking it on the road to sold-out shows across the land.

This year the tour has included special guest post-punk/new wave icon Elvis Costello and the Imposters. The revolutionary English performer had come far from his roots working with Nick Lowe and Stiff Records and continues to make dynamic music. Costello has moved from his skinny pants and checkered jackets to a much more country look, and even a country feel to his music. His signature black glasses, though, are still there.

At first glance, this seems like unlikely pairing, but they have been touring through the summer. How did this basic rock ‘n’ roll English act and the California Blue Eyed Jazz act play together? Magnificently!

The Chastain Amphitheater and its Infamous Indifferent Audience

Many Atlantans believe that the Chastain Amphitheater is notable for two distinct features: impeccable acoustics and some of the worst concert goers on the planet. Built into a natural hill on the north end of Chastain Park during World War II, the venue’s stone benches and gentle slope allow music to resonate clearly through the crowd. Sadly, both Elvis Costello and Steely Dan had the audio levels cranked slightly higher than their speakers could clearly produce, and there was distortion–particularly in Costello’s vocals. However, there was a pleasant surprise for attendees.

While most folks in the audience were not paying attention through most of Elvis Costello’s set, they were in rapt attention with Steely Dan. This older crowd, most approaching retirement age, were long-term fans who showed the respect the band deserved. I have seen performers ask people to stop talking more than once at Chastain, but this time Walter Becker thanked them for singing along and enjoying the show.

Elvis Costello and the Imposters

Elvis Costello left his original band, The Attractions, behind decades ago, but the Imposters are equal to the task of playing his earliest songs. In fact, this show featured three songs from My Aim is True (Costello’s first album), and most of the songs were released by Costello before 1984 originally.

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello

Performing in strong daylight, Costello and his band opened with a later 80s song, “I Hope You Are Happy Now.” Despite some distortion when the band moved to louder sections, the energy was raw and fresh. The crowd, as Chastain crowds are want to do, continued to set up tables and spread out their wine and cheeses.

There was an irony about the casualness of “Radio, Radio,” a song that seems quaint today. Costello earned a lifetime ban from Saturday Night Live 30 years ago for playing this song after being told it was too controversial for late night network television in America.

As the sun set slowly, the band walked through a number of hits and fan favorites. Deep cut “Love Field” and George Jones’ “A Good Year for The Roses” slowed things down for a bit, but also set up the last portion of show where mega-hits came one after another, each raising the energy in the arena and the interest of the crowd: “Everyday I Write the Book,” “Alison,“ “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea,” and “Pump It Up.”

It all ran straight to a crowd sing-a-long of “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” It’s a question as valid this week, with a crisis again brewing in Ferguson, Mo., as it was when it was first released.

Steely Dan

When discussing Steely Dan in the office the next morning, my coworkers gave a long list of favorite Steely Dan songs and continued to name amazing hits that WERE NOT part of this show’s set list. This is because, in the end, their catalog includes album after album filled with multiple hits. Songs that were not performed include “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Deacon Blues,” “Dirty Work,” “Babylon Sisters,” “FM,” and everything else not on the set list (see below).

Steely Dan

Steely Dan

So Fagan and Becker needed to go through their vast repertoire and represent the best of their career. As Costello focused on his early work, Steely Dan focused on their later work. A large number of songs played Sunday are from the mega-hit album Aja, and its follow up album Gaucho.

The musical intricacy of Steely Dan was often cited as the reason they didn’t perform live. Well, with a stellar horn section, the smooth harmonies of The Dannetts (A Ronets inspired trio of backup singers), and a solid set of core musicians, they have solved this problem and created a beautiful, flawless band that handled all the songs superbly.  If anything, one could argue that the technical precision of the band may have made the performance slightly sterile, odd for a bad so grounded in and influenced by jazz.

Halfway through the show I had decided I had enough, the songs were starting to sound alike, and the night was taking a toll on my own personal energy.  The jazzy undercurrents lulling me to sleep, and I did not want have to struggle to stay awake. I had never heard Razor Boy, sung by the Dannetts, and I was never going to be a favorite.  I got up and started to leave.  Then…then it happened. There was a momentary lull in the music.  You could hear the conversations drift up into the darkening skies in a thunder like murmur.  The music began, the crowd fell silent, and Steely Dan started playing “Bodhisattva.”  Within seconds everyone was dancing.  I returned to my seat, dancing as I walked.

Just like the Elvis Costello set, there was a noticeable change in energy half way through the set. The dancing from “Bodhisattva” continued through the evening. I stayed all the way through the “Kid Charlemagne” encore.  I was glad I did.

“Kid Charlemagne”, like “Deacon Blues”, is a song about hope in the face of despair or maybe it is a song about despair leading to hope. Whichever it is, the arena lit up with excitement as all of us fans, aging suburban commandos grasping for straws of our youth, sang out together.  Across Chastain we all nodded to ourselves along with the music, knowing we would all go to LA on a dare.

For more information about Steely Dan, visit their website at http://www.steelydan.com.

To find out more about Elvis Costello, visit http://www.elviscostello.com.

Full Photo Gallery Steely Dan

 

Full Photo Gallery Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello setlist Steely Dan setlist
I Hope You’re Happy Now Cubano Chant
High Fidelity Black Cow
Radio, Radio Aja
Lipstick Vogue Hey Nineteen
Watching the Detectives Black Friday
Accidents Will Happen / Flutter and Wow Time Out of Mind
Love Field (with Larkin Poe) Show Biz Kids
A Good Year for the Roses Godwhacker
Everyday I Write the Book Razor Boy
Alison Bodhisattva
(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More
Pump It Up I Want To (Do Everything for You)
(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding Josie
Peg
My Old School
Reelin’ in the Years
Encore:
Kid Charlemagne
The Untouchables

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