One of the most intriguing double bills of Austin’s summer music season has to be Steely Dan’s Rockabye Gollie Angel Tour with Elvis Costello & The Imposters at the Austin360 Amphitheater on July 17. If you consider Costello more of a peer than a supporting act—not an unreasonable assumption—there’s a certain logic to the pairing, even if it’s a bit of Pretzel Logic. (Besides, Austin is fond of both.)
Costello and Steely Dan coleaders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have never been much for chasing trends, always opting to chart their own path and let their audiences find them. Although being a fan of one doesn’t necessarily translate to being a fan of the other, the operative phrase here seems to be “mutual respect.”
“Steely Dan is still the gold standard of live performance in terms of musicianship and pure sonic pleasure.” — Rick McNulty
Rick McNulty, an Austin radio host on KUTX and KOOP, is a serious Dan fan: He has seen the band on every tour since 1993, when Becker and Fagen ended their self-imposed studio exile and started staging their first live concerts since 1974. “That was one of the selling points [of the concerts], because it was so much like the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of a big jazz band, like Ellington used to have around or Count Basie,” says McNulty. “They had dozens of incredible musicians onstage, and they just put on a great traveling show.”
If some considered Steely Dan to be dinosaurs even in 1993, in 2015 their songs have since achieved the phrase “timeless classics.” But talking about the Dan’s relevance, according to McNulty, is totally irrelevant.
“Any band after 15 years is probably no longer ‘relevant’ in pop music conversations,” he explains. “But they’re still the gold standard of live performance in terms of musicianship and, for lack of a better phrase, pure sonic pleasure.”
“Costello also poses an interesting quandary for [Steely Dan], because he always puts on a spectacular show in terms of sheer performance,” McNulty adds. “I’ve seen him do it acoustically, just by himself; I’ve seen him play with a band. He can really bring a house down whereas [Steely Dan is] not like that—they’re more ‘Listen to the music; don’t pay any attention to us.’ They’ve never had an opening act like Costello; they usually just have a jazz trio. Honestly, I think part of it was to help ticket sales so they could play bigger venues, but he is also an artist they respect because of the similarities in the intelligent lyrics, the songwriting, and the fact that he’s aged very well—like they have.”
Both Steely Dan and Costello share stocks in trade of acerbic lyrics and quirky, literate, and often opaque turns of phrase. “It’s esoteric—not for everybody,” says McNulty of the former. “I consider them the Coen brothers of rock. It’s an acquired taste. It’s like a very fine wine or a Scotch that certain snobs only understand. I don’t know how to say this without sounding judgmental, but they have a highly intelligent audience.” Unapologetic snob appeal? Perhaps, but these two acts definitely have the chops, the colleagues, and the catalog to back it up. Tickets $35- $125; July 17, Austin360 Amphitheater at Circuit of The Americas