Steely Dan at Ravinia
When you first enter Ravinia, it’s kind of a surreal experience. I mean, security will check your bags but not for what you think. You may have a cooler of beer, several wine bottles, scotch, cheese and crackers in your cooler on wheels and they blink. Ravinia’s website states they are an outdoor venue with gorgeous sprawling lawn and encourage guests to bring chairs, tables, blankets and as much food and beverage as you need. When searching, they push the booze and cheese aside and focus on dangerous items not to be brought in, think knives, guns, and explosives. Imagine having this inclusive policy entering Soldier Field or Lucas Oil Stadium for an NFL game? I’m not sure if water bottles are even allowed in most football venues.
Because traffic sometimes causes me mental friction, I left my home (some 15 miles away from Ravinia) hours before the warm-up band was scheduled to test out the acoustic system. I’ve been stuck in Ravinia traffic in the past and that bad karma is still as vivid in my mind as a rainbow. Not this time. My strategic is to go north. Over the last few years, I’ve parked at the Highland Park train station and boarded the shuttle buses that take you to and from the venue. That works OK, however, at the end of the concert, there may be a thousand folks in queue before it’s your turn. Staff works hard to keep it moving, however, it just takes time to pack bus after bus of 50 riders and their baggage. Even with 6 or more buses operating, it can take 20-45 minutes to be transported 3 miles back to your car.
Last year, I decided to try something new. I parked my minivan with our two bicycles at the Highland Park train station. Because the weather is typically good during summer evenings, biking to the venue gives you flexibility. In the past when we drove and to avoid the long lines at the bus shuttle, we’ve skipped the encore. That’s not always palatable, especially if you’re a fan of the band. With the two wheeler, I’m all in for the encore and leave once the velvet curtain is finished moving for the evening. Hardest part was convincing my wife to try this last year. Even though it felt creepy for us to be riding on the unlit and deserted bike path along the Chicago Northwestern train line, my wife claims she’ll do it again.
This year, riding solo and arriving early, I wandered around taking in the surroundings and allowed me to “people watch” and observing the park’s beauty. Twice, I walked by the merchandise tent where most Steely Dan attire was between $35 and $50. I saw a beautiful Aja shirt for $40 and was tempted to pull the trigger. In my mind, there’s one good opportunity to buy merchandise, much before the show. That way, you can change into your new t-shirt and show all the other fans how serious you are about this band that formed in the early 70’s by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
As I wandered around the park, I took a number of pictures. This included the beautiful gardens, interesting architecture, the venue itself, the lawn party goers, all the green space, restaurants, and shops. I’ll state the obvious but you’re much more likely to notice things when observing things on your own and not necessarily focused on carrying on conversations with others.
Even though I took many pictures, I did not think at all to take one selfy. The thought never came to mind. I can glance in any mirror and realize I’m certainly not a millennial simply based on my hair color.
As I wandered around, I wondered what was best, quality or quantity when it comes to Ravinia. In other words, if I only had $200, would I rather spend it on good pavilion seats, a drink or two and a nice meal or attend 3 separate times and party and picnic on the lawn? For the most part, give me the quality if the music is hot. I’ve had lawn seats before and gone to different events within this venue and knowing where to sit depends on who’s playing. In other words, if it’s a good sounding band like Robert Cray, Lenny Kravitz, James Taylor, or Steely Dan, get me an assigned seat. Experience has shown me different guests have different expectations — some want to hang out and chat and others are there to enjoy the music with eyes opened or shut. So you’ll never know what you’ll experience or not experience by not reserving your seats and not seeing the musicians.
If it’s a symphony or lounge type performance, I’ll grab my blanket and find a comfy spot somewhere near a speaker. Generally, I want to do it in style. Regarding those lawn guests, who are schlepping coolers and backpacks on wheels who remind me of an airport, I wonder if they alternate between lawn and assigned seats or are strictly lawn guests.
It goes without saying that the majority of attendees to Steely Dan were in their 50’s and 60’s. Seeing how the band began to produce music around ’72, a 20 year old at the time would be 64 today. I was a little surprised to see some millennials in attendance. I was curious about why they were there. Did their parents expose them to Steely Dan? Did the band’s unique funky and jazzy style draw them in? Did those born between 1982 and 2000 come for the music or the social factor or both?
I sat in row MM, seat 2, about 100 or so feet from the stage. Being towards the back, I watched the ushers deal with antsy fans coming and going. I got the sense that those who had a reserved seat acted like they were at a baseball game. Many guests were up and down like 3rd grade boys. Too much beer or wine prior? I was surprised to see dozens of fans who had to be ushered to their seat during the first 3 songs of their set. Many of whom casually looked for their seats while the band performed.
During a few times during the concert, Donald Fagen had challenges reaching the high notes – no worries as he had his younger female vocalists do the dirty work. There were a few times he missed a few of his lyrics — especially during Hey Nineteen but again, no worries. Becker and Fagen were terrific and their band does a terrific job and according to Walter, this was the best damn band in the land. The musicians that made up the band played percussion, brass section, backup vocals. One interesting note on this topic, it was typically not Donald heaping praise but rather Walter.
Many of the favorites besides Hey Nineteen, included Black Cow, Dirty Work, Peg and Josie. Crowd stood and danced during the last third of the show. What I failed to realized is that many of their songs went on for 6-8 minutes which means the set may be 18 songs instead of a much longer playlist. One disappointment was when they played only one song for their encore, Kid Charlemagne. Out of gas or pacing themselves for such a long tour? Had they added 1 additional song to the encore, concert would have been a strong 2 hours.
Some may call me a geek but I brought my binoculars to the concert seeing how I was toward the back of the pavilion. I saw no other guests with binoculars. With the large screens at most concerts, I believe most people look into the big screen when they want to get closer to the action. I had someone ask me the point behind those binoculars. I said it helps me to get closer to the action and they pointed to the big screen for that. My perspective, with this tool you can zoom in on any musician on stage and by simply relying on the big screen, you’re at the mercy of the producer. This powerful optical device give me more control and besides, they provide a better picture than those large screens.
I had an interesting conversation with a fellow fan who sat next to me during the concert about why Steely Dan has been touring so much over the last few years. Is it adulation, money, fun, or all of the above? During their first 15-20 years of existence, they clearly did not have any inclination to travel — I believe I heard they were afraid their live music would not sound like a recording studio and hence disappoint the fans. Obviously, times have changed. One thing for sure, they’re not taking themselves as serious as before — or should I say, they appear to be more modest and easy going about their musical performance.
I became interested in Steely Dan late in the 70’s, I guess that’s what college is all about, meeting men and women from all around with various musical backgrounds. Exposure to different music can not only be a history lesson but can broaden your perspective to different backgrounds and tastes. Much of my exposure to Steely Dan had to do with reading various album covers as I listened to this unique and interesting sound. Learning about their background, the various musicians that collaborated on a given album and what the collection of music was saying. After a period of time, you’re branded. Knowing that each album may actually represent a unique sound to appreciate.
Prior to being exposed to Steely Dan, in the mid-Seventies my teenage sister had purchased Can’t Buy a Thrill with the album cover clearly portraying prostitutes in the red light district waiting for clients. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to the cover although I vaguely remember the band’s name. Regarding my sister, with her tame musical and cultural habits, I wondered if she even studied the risqué album cover. In retrospect, I’m thinking she purchased the album because of its two singles released: Reelin’ In the Years and Do It Again. I don’t think my parents even gave it an initial look although it would have been very uncommon for them to not have scrutinized my music.
I’m glad this special band appears to be a little more laid back and tours instead of insisting that all their fans just listen to the perfect sound of a studio recording.Their live music not only made me feel good and get up and dance, it brought back warm memories of high school, college and friends who first exposed me to this music many years ago. Although many years have past since college, their live music can bring us fans together, hang out and enjoy the music once again. The crazy thing is, I still appreciate their music, live or tightly recorded within a studio. And besides, who says you Can’t Buy a Thrill.