Steely Dan With Strings? Are They Nuts?


steelydanGreat Rock artists take chances and try new things. They can take big chances, like a new album that makes a sharp left turn, or small chances, like a new arrangement of a song in concert. But the risks are always highly variable.

Sometimes, an artist will have a reasonably good idea that a grand innovation will work. When The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, it was unlike any album that had ever been made up to that point. But given the way music was headed in June 1967, and given their own massive popularity, the lads had good reason to believe their bold experiment would pay off.

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There are other times when an artist has come up with something new, and they give it a try in concert. But this isn’t a risk-free activity either. A botched song or presentation in concert will hit YouTube and Twitter in minutes, and give the artist something to cringe about for like, forever.

And then there are those rare artists who don’t give a shit and will try something new just to see what happens, even if they don’t think it will work very well. That pretty much sums up Steely Dan’s attitude towards a concert at the Hollywood Bowl last week. For the first time in their career, they agreed to be backed by a symphony orchestra in concert.

Right off the bat, it sounds like a questionable idea. Steely Dan is not high on the list of bands who could benefit by being backed by an orchestra. It just seems like it would be sonic poison to the band’s funky grooves and cynical persona. Yet, like rubberneckers at a car accident, the boys were very curious to see what would happen. Before the show Donald Fagen told the L.A. Times that “it’s gonna surprise us as much as anyone else”.

So how did it turn out? Judging from the YouTube clips I’d have to say: pretty weird. Not a trainwreck, but pretty jarring, like brown shoes with a tuxedo. The L.A. Times review said the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra made Steely Dan occasionally sound schmaltzy like Chicago. But the intro to “Josie” did seem kinda cool, and the 11-man Steely Dan lineup is as good as it gets, so I’m sure it would have been a blast to be in the audience regardless.

And I’d be willing to bet that they don’t do this again, now that they’ve got it out of their system.


Photo credit: By Kotivalo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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