Reelin’ in the years


As a birthday present, Kathleen — the nice lady that let’s me live in her house — took me over to the Mud Island Amphitheater (in Memphis) to see Steely Dan in concert. I’ve been a fan of The Dan since I was a little kid.

Some of my first musical memories are of travelling along in my parents’ ’68 Mustang listening to cuts from Can’t Buy a Thrill, Katy Lied and other early albums. Perhaps it’s just sentimentality, but Rikki Don’t Lose That Number is likely my most favorite pop song. As fans of The Dan will attest, that choice marks me as something less than a true connoisseur of the canon.

While folks filled the venue on the warm but windy evening, I noticed something else that set me apart from the legion of devoted followers: age. Having just slid into 48, there are few moments in life that make me feel like a youngster. This was one of them.

Even from a fleeting glance across the rows, one could guess that a line from Babylon Sisters would be particularly resonate: “I’m not what I used to be.” Yeah, well, who is? It’s not like anybody wants to need reading glasses.

God love these people for their enthusiasm. In the case of the three ladies about eight rows ahead of me, a little less enthusiasm might have been warranted. While a souvenir t-shirt would set you back a stinging $40, a fairly large beer was only $3. The ladies didn’t buy t-shirts.

I’ve also come to realize that women of their experience, arrhythmic bent and alcohol content have a signature dance. The arms are a little too high, the knees a little too bent and the gyrations a little too suggestive. But again, better that than crusting over in the Barcalounger waiting for canasta night to roll around.

Then there was the smattering of gentlemen sporting red felt fezzes — a nod to the namesake track from The Royal Scam. Even though one does not normally encounter fez-wearers out in the ‘burbs, their choice of chapeau is entirely consistent with everything I understand about The Dan — sardonic wit, hipster cool and absurdity, all set to a heavily jazz-inspired soundtrack.

Among the cortege of flat-topped cone-heads, there was one gent of particular note. He was a man of ample physical proportions. While seeing a fellow of his circumference wearing a fez was remarkable on its own, there was just something about him that harkened strongly to Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) in Casablanca. Surely Bogart must have been close by.

The main course of this sensory feast was — naturally — the music. At moments one could feel the band’s fatigue of having played the same songs for four decades. This was offset by arrangements that showcased the virtuosity of the band members. The set list was a pleasing mix of new (a decade old) and (truly) old favorites. My tastes in the literature of The Dan are a bit desultory. Their newest album, Everything Must Go, represents to me the clear and necessary evolutionary path of the ensemble. Then again, how could you not love Deacon Blues, Peg or Hey Nineteen?

Perhaps the best thing about the concert was its capacity to transform the audience. I sat down with a couple thousand late-career professionals and recent retirees, but I left with people for whom “smoking with the boys upstairs” and drinking “kirschwasser from a shell” were fresh, vital and recent memories. Music may not be the only thing capable of doing that, but this music, on that night, for these folks was magic.

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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com.