Steely Dan wrote songs about the excesses of the “Me Generation” of the 1970s: cerebral songs about the glories and tragedies of drugs, sex, parties, crime, and the music business itself. Their music is dense and jazzy; it resisted pop structures and hooks for intelligence and musicianship, yet it has powerful grooves from its funk and R & B influences. Donald Fagen sang with a unique, nasal voice, which sounds wounded or drug-addled, but was actually very musically precise. Walter Becker co-wrote Steely Dan’s music, adding instrumentation and pioneering musical production techniques. Fagen and Becker’s well-known perfectionism resulted in several landmark studio albums, high praise from critics, and lasting popularity.
Loren Lang, the singer and leader of Iowa City’s the Fez, started the group after drummer—and Insectoid bandmate—Ben Franklin remarked on how uncannily Loren’s voice sounds like Donald Fagen’s. Ben suggested they do a Steely Dan tribute, and they were able to recruit other artists to the project. Loren and Ben laid out a plan, seeking essential musical parts in order to do a worthy tribute. Loren said, “Once the rhythm section from Public Property (Franklin, Jeremiah Murphy, and Andy Parrott) was on board, most people we approached jumped at the chance to play challenging music they love with a bunch of crack musicians”.
Steely Dan’s music is definitely challenging, as Donald Fagen and Walter Becker crafted complex, jazz-influenced tunes with a multitude of session artists. The Fez uses 15 musicians on stage to reproduce the Steely Dan sound authentically: Loren Lang (vocals), Jeremiah Murphy (bass), Ben Franklin (drums), Creighton Gaynor (percussion), Andy Parrott (guitar), Seth May (guitar), Pat Weeks (keys), Robert Monroe (keys), Saul Lubaroff (saxophone), Jim Pickering (saxophone), Greg Young (trombone), Brett Peterson (trumpet), Bethann Gavin (vocals), Katie Robbins (vocals), and Meghan McDonough (vocals).
The main stage at the Blue Moose is one of few in Iowa City that can contain such musical excess, and the band packed the large space with a huge crowd at their debut show in April. The crowd danced and grooved all night, demanding more at the end of the show. This Friday, the Fez will perform two sets of about 12 songs each, including, in Loren’s words, “several new songs, including a couple epic tunes of exceptional difficulty.”
According to Loren, Steely Dan is an ideal subject for a tribute, since they have a deep, high quality catalog, a devoted, pan-generational following, and memorable tunes with dense arrangements that are challenging to perform. Their music is rarely covered due to the large, high-caliber band required to perform Steely Dan’s complex music. Loren believes that “their music is truly timeless, and offers a level of polish and sophistication that has rarely been seen in popular music.” Loren named the band “The Fez” after a Steely Dan deep track, which is actually a euphemism for condom use, “Ain’t never gonna do it without the fez on…” It’s an appropriately “inside joke” of a name, as Fagen’s lyrics are wry and witty, full of naughty imagery and cautionary tales.
I attended their breakout debut in April, and have rarely been so blown away, so surprised and impressed by a musical experience. Born during their heyday, I confess to being unfamiliar with Steely Dan past their pop radio hits like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Reelin’ In The Years”. Steely Dan’s music is epic, and The Fez recreates that giant, smooth sound with authenticity and authority. See them this Friday, 9/16/11 at 9:00pm, at the Blue Moose Taphouse at 211 Iowa street in Iowa City, and at the Englert Theater on March 9, 2012.