The songs of Steely Dan made them sound like the hippest, smartest guys on the radio in their 1970s heyday. The group’s arrangements were a sophisticated amalgam of jazz, rock and Tin Pan Alley. The protagonists were disaffected and wary of conformity, fleeing mundane safety for more picaresque environments and tossing out cynical bon mots along the way.
Guitarist Vernon Reid was listening and is now exploring the music of Steely Dan in his own nonconformist way.
“Steely Dan is the prototypical hipster band,” said Reid, who came to fame as the leader of the funk-metal band Living Colour (hit: “Cult of Personality”) and later founded the Black Rock Coalition with writer Greg Tate.
But there is also a racial component to why Reid successfully argued for Burnt Sugar — the sprawling, 17-piece band originally assembled by Tate as a blend of George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra’s Arkestra — to put together a performance that subverts and celebrates the Steely Dan catalog. Walker Art Center will present the show, complete with video clips assembled by Tate, on Saturday.
“Steely Dan took on race with these nerdy American obsessives — the one white guy who lives in a black neighborhood is a classic character in a Steely Dan song,” continued Reid, who grew up in New York City. “On the one hand, they are bohemian slummers who bravely walk away from entitlement — they come from wealth and taste.”
On the other hand, Reid heard an appropriation of black culture not unlike what occurred during the beatnik movement of the 1950s. (The name Steely Dan comes from a sex toy in the novel “Naked Lunch” by beatnik godfather William Burroughs.)
“As a fan of the band, what if I signified back, and used a largely African-American band to take these songs and turn them sideways?” Reid asked.
In the hands of Burnt Sugar, the answer to that question becomes provocative and illuminating. When the protagonist is an outsider not by choice, but societal fiat, the axis does indeed shift sideways.
You hear it in the reference to the “traveling minstrel show” in “Pretzel Logic.” It’s in the words of the title and chorus of “Any World (That I’m Welcome To),” which continues, “is better than the one I come from.” When a black female singer is delivering the lines to “Black Cow,” the double entendre of the ice cream soda takes on an added bite.
Then there is “Deacon Blues.”
“Steely Dan is mythologizing the tragic lives [of these jazz musicians], which reduces it to a series of clichés,” Reid said. “But when Jeffrey Smith, the leader of our horn section, sings out [their lyric], ‘This brother is free/I’ll be what I want to be,’ it becomes a very daring claim.”
Twisting up James Brown
Tate said this Steely Dan project is “definitely Vernon’s baby.”
Burnt Sugar was conceived by Tate and bassist Jared Nickerson. But about two years ago, “Vernon came to me wanting to call Steely Dan’s bluff, and to get at the debts that hipster culture, beat culture, owe to black music,” Tate said.
The first shows, staged in 2012 at Lincoln Center in New York, were a resounding success.
“People went nuts,” Nickerson said. Subsequent gigs “had lines running down the block. The response on Facebook was like people had found a new religion. It frankly shocked us. But you put together those intricate songs with these musicians and then we inject it with the Holy Ghost and it becomes an event.”
When Burnt Sugar started out in 1999, “we would just go up onstage and formulate music on the spot,” Nickerson said.
While the group did indeed live up to its woolly Funkadelic-meets-the-Arkestra premise, putting together a tour with such a large band required commitments from booking agents who wanted to know what they were getting.
“We were blessed when the Apollo Theater came and asked us to twist up James Brown’s catalog for a show,” Nickerson said. “Then we did the David Bowie songbook for some shows at Lincoln Center.” Suddenly the band had a niche for its genre-bending interplay.
It was during the Bowie performances that Reid hit upon the idea of “twisting up” Steely Dan. Although he has made his reputation as a remarkably inventive guitarist, tapes of Burnt Sugar playing Steely Dan at Lincoln Center find Reid standing up front as a combination conductor and audience cheerleader, goosing up the enthusiasm.
“Yeah, I might play a little guitar, but I’ll mostly conduct,” Reid said sheepishly. “Why? Because it is so much fun. When Greg conducts, he uses all these motions [borrowed from the conducting method] of Butch Morris. Mine are very basic — higher, lower, slower, faster, come in here. But I just love to play and shape this incredible band that Greg has put together. ”
So Burnt Sugar can knock Steely Dan sideways, for a socially conscious but very playful loop.
Britt Robson, of Minneapolis, writes about music and basketball.