After ZZ Top’s unanticipated (but certainly justified) cancellation of the Biltmore Concert Series’ inaugural show, it was up to a couple of other veterans to take the lead 24 hours later to begin what is sure to be a memorable summer of top-shelf live music at America’s largest private home (the Biltmore estate was owned by the Vanderbilt family).
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker kicked off the Biltmore’s annual summer event schedule supported by high-caliber talent filling out the Steely Dan roster – as well as a somewhat predictable set list. From opening with Aja’s “Black Cow” to closing the main set with Can’t Buy a Thrill’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” to capping off the night with The Royal Scam‘s “Kid Charlemagne,” it was a performance that contained few surprises, but was world class, nonetheless.
Before the founding duo took their places at opposite sides of the stage, the 11-piece ensemble consisting of a four-piece horn section, three backup vocalists, Jon Herington on lead guitar, Freddie Washington on bass and Keith Carlock on drums provided a jazzy intro, laying the groundwork for Fagen and Becker’s arrival.
On most numbers, Becker seemed more than happy to give the lead guitar duties to Herington, who was perfectly capable of replicating the riffs once thrown down in the studio by Becker and Larry Carlton. With Fagen’s voice getting a little tired over the years, he was more than happy to hand off the lead vocals on “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More” to his decades-old partner in crime, in what was an unexpected surprise. Fagen would also take a break from singing on “Razor Boy,” as his three lovely backup singers shared the spotlight and gave the tune a refreshing face-lift.
Of course, “Reelin’ In The Years” was an expected highlight, with Herington hitting the lead guitar notes to a tee with his Gibson SG, an axe that would also get a workout a few minutes later during the “Kid Charlemagne” encore. Special props should also be given to Carlock, who provided the steady and commanding beat on the drum kit, along with a few fills that even Steve Gadd would envy.
Missing from the Biltmore performance were highly anticipated selections such as “Do It Again” off Can’t Buy a Thrill, and more from Royal Scam. Perhaps an obscure song or two would have added some interest as well, but for the most part, Fagen, Becker and company delivered a respectable anthology given the two-hour window that they were allotted to fill.
Though one would think that “Reelin’ in the Years,” certainly Steely Dan’s most popular hit in the ’70s, would be the Biltmore crowd’s overall favorite, the cut that got everyone out of their seats was “My Old School” from Countdown To Ecstasy. It was late in the game, but the party on the mansion’s South Terrace was finally rocking. Even the disciplined Biltmore security staff threw in the towel on the Estate’s no standing/dancing policy- which was welcomed by most in attendance, but not all.
The Biltmore Estate, in all of its historic and architectural glory, offers quite a unique setting for concerts. But it’s not the best fit for every artist, or for every fan. On this night, Steely Dan was perfect, bringing a sophisticated sound to an equally sophisticated venue. It was a sold out show, and deservedly so. Apart from the footloose fans turned off by the security restrictions (including one or two that were turned back to their cars for resisting the policy) it was a fitting commencement to a magical summer of music in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
– David Simchock