Angular Banjos Sound Good to Me

As I wrote last week, it’s hard to imagine summer in Wisconsin without Summerfest in Milwaukee–it’s not just a music festival, it’s a celebration of cheesehead culture. Grilled sausages with side orders of deep-fried everything float on an ocean of beer; hundreds of vendors demonstrate their wares in hopes of gulling holidaying customers to buy unnecessaries, the way people always buy fudge while they’re on vacation in the Dells or Door County; and men and women who ought to know better display more flesh than they’re qualified to.

And the music itself generally demonstrates the pageant of life up here, even amidst the annual complaints that there are too many blues bands and not enough hip-hop shows. Or at least it’s supposed to. The strange thing about Summerfest the last two or three years is the amount of downtime on various stages. The organizers seem to have scheduled fewer bands further apart. Whether this is to maximize the possibilities for the vendors, keep traffic flowing in and out of the grounds, or what is unclear. The end result is that this year, our sixth straight year attending the Fest, we probably heard less music than in any other year. We’d sit down at a stage and the band would promptly wrap up, with a lengthy (and scheduled) delay before the next one. But after attending the Marcus Amphitheater show Friday night, featuring the self-christened Steelyard “Sugartooth” McDan (and the, we still felt like we’d gotten our money’s worth at the end of the night.

Michael McDonald opened the show in fine voice. (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reviewer described it as an “indefatigable and instantly recognizable falsetto with a low tone not unlike that of a shout in an oak barrel.”) Now that he’s recorded two CDs of Motown covers, his library of available tunes is even deeper than it was when he had only his previous solo work and Doobies tunes to draw from. And although the JS reviewer didn’t care for the Motown stuff, I did–the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell twosome “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” felt like a show-stopper to me.

About two minutes before Steely Dan came on, I guessed that they might open with “Bodhissatva,” and I turned out to be right. But I’d have done poorly trying to guess the rest of the setlist. The band reached way back in time for some surprising choices, including changed-up versions of “Do It Again” and “Show Biz Kids,” and perhaps the most surprising tune of all, “Any World That I’m Welcome To,” from Katy Lied. The rest of the set featured exactly nothing from the band’s recent albums, Everything Must Go and Two Against Nature, and nothing from Donald Fagen’s current solo album. It relied heavily on songs from Aja, skipping only “Home at Last” and “Deacon Blues.” Given that “Deacon Blues” was the emotional high-point of the Dan’s 2000 show in Milwaukee, its absence was noticeable this time–but playing “Aja” and “Black Cow” this time made up for it a little.

The JS reviewer criticized “Aja” for its “super-relaxed and elongated pace” and suggested it needed a surge, which misses the point of “Aja” entirely–the languid pace adds to the power of the song, which is structured to give the soloists room to stretch out. Drummer Keith Carlock held up his end, doing justice to Steve Gadd’s explosive performance on the recorded original. Sax player Walt Weiskopf wasn’t as successful approaching Wayne Shorter’s–but Shorter’s shoes are big for almost everybody.

Donald Fagen was a lot more verbose on stage this time than last, even providing a humorous bit about the worm in a tequila bottle in the middle of “Hey Nineteen.” It’s pretty clear that he can’t hit the high notes like he used to–not even like six years ago–but he got better as the night went on. Walter Becker let his guitar do the talking. He did get to introduce the band, but unlike the 2000 tour, he didn’t sing. (Which, honesty compels me to report, is not necessarily a bad thing.)

McDonald came back out for the last three or four numbers, as expected–although I was surprised not to hear “Pretzel Logic,” which was McDonald’s spotlight number back in the day. He was onstage for the encores, “Reelin’ in the Years” and the Dan’s traditional closer, “My Old School,” which featured a backing vocal group in excess of 20,000.

In the end, a fine time was had by all. While it’s doubtful that Steelyard “Sugartooth” McDan really invented the blues, his 21st century descendents know how to throw a plush jazz-rock party.

One thought on “Angular Banjos Sound Good to Me

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