Steely Dan are amongst that privileged elite of musicians which include The Beatles and Brian Wilson, who gave up touring at a certain point in their career to become the masters of studio perfection and release albums so good that they defined an era. In the case of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan the obsessive search for the "right cut" would see them use 42 musicians on the 1980s album "Gaucho" with its title track drum backdrop assembled from 46 different takes.
This live recording from Ellis Auditorium Memphis April 30th 1974 is taken from a FM Radio Broadcast Concert which has been remastered. It draws on the bands album "Can't buy a thrill", "Countdown to Ecstasy" and "Pretzel Logic", The sound quality is very heavy on the bass and the description of it as "superb fidelity" is pushing it as on times the balance of the mix is often messy. What it usefully achieves is to present the band in the raw, demonstrating that they were a fine live act especially with the brilliant guitar work of Jeff "Skunk" Baxter giving them a hard blues edge on tracks like the Dan favourite "Pretzel Logic". This reviewer was never a fan of the original vocalist David Palmer who had left the band by the time this tour occurred. Here percussionist Royce Jones takes on a number of songs including "Brooklyn owes a charmer", "Dirty Work" and sadly a very strained vocal on "My old school" which does not hold a candle to the studio version and Fagan's sneering vocal. The highlights inevitably come on standards where Becker and Fagan take control including a brilliant "Rikki don't lose that number" and a rocking "Bodhisattva" where Baxter's jazzy runs are a thing of wonder and the ever dependable Kenny Diaz plays a key role. In addition the short instrumental contained is actually the opening segment of the later "Your Gold Teeth II" from "Katy Lied". The funky cynicism of "Do it Again" still sounds great after all these years although a warning as this version does include a short drum workout! "Reelin' in the years" alternatively has perhaps become such a bar band classic that even a different take on it doesn't really add that much. It is great however to hear a wonderfully sleazy "Showbiz kids" and the rare "This all too mobile home" which would have fitted nicely on "Pretzel Logic"
Overall none of the versions on this live album surpass the meticulous studio cuts, many of which have been subject to some very recent remasterings, not least the pristine 2014 version of "Countdown". Ellis Auditorium however is a historical document of a band about to retreat into the studio and not emerge for decades. This is Steely Dan "warts an all" demonstrating the bands strengths and failings. It is well worth investigation.
Review by Red on Black