David Fricke on Steely Dan, the Damned, Dweezil Zappa's Living History

Recent NYC shows proved three legacy acts still have something fresh to say

David Fricke reviews back-catalog-focused NYC gigs from Steely Dan, the Damned and Dweezil Zappa.

"Is there anybody here who was at CBGB?" Guitarist Captain Sensible of the Damned asked that question early in the first set of the band's marathon show at the Gramercy Theatre on October 29th. He was referring to the British punk institution's New York debut on April 7th, 1977, the first official landing of London's new mayhem on the Bowery. About a dozen hands went in the air – not a bad count of living testimony after 39 years. The rest of us were content to be jealous, and up to our eyeballs in retrospective delirium as the group's current lineup, headed by co-founders Sensible and singer Dave Vanian, ripped through 35 songs from across the band's 40-year history – entirely in reverse, from 2008's So, Who's Paranoid? back to the 1976 single "New Rose."

My whole weekend was like that, uptown and down. Steely Dan played the penultimate night of their now-annual New York season of full-album and concept-set list shows at the Beacon Theater on October 28th. On the 30th, Dweezil Zappa was on that stage, celebrating the music of his father, Frank Zappa, in a concert that turned the Damned's conceit around the other way: beginning at the 50th-anniversary mark with the slicing wit and twang of Freak Out!, the elder Zappa's 1966 album debut with the Mothers of Invention, and closing with a sobering reminder of the escalating family feud over the composer's estate.

There was no new material in these shows. But like Desert Trip, they were an opportunity to see gospel rendered by the creators – or in Dweezil's case, a direct, schooled descendant. And while those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it, as the saying goes, those who didn't get to bear witness the first time around deserve a shot, for as long as the creators are able to deliver.

Steely Dan's "Old School" Party

Any Steely Dan show that opens with "Bodhisattva," the snappy, high-speed smackdown of delusional spirituality at the front of 1973's Countdown to Ecstasy, is off to a rare and bracing start. It also promises to confound, as that record did when it arrived in the Top 20 wake of the Dan's 1972 debut, Can't Buy a Thrill. A darker confection of jazz, Latin rhythms and embittered lyric sting, Countdown to Ecstasy stalled at Number 35 on the Billboard chart and had no hit singles – the least likely of the seven LPs from singer-pianist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker's otherwise effortlessly platinum era to merit the front-to-back treatment.

In fact, they saved it for last, the ninth of their 10 October shows at the Beacon, after running through 1976's The Royal Scam, '77's Aja (twice) and 1980's Gaucho. (The last concert, on October 29th, was greatest-hits time.) Steely Dan were still a nominally conventional rock group on Countdown to Ecstasy; Jon Herington, Becker's co-lead guitarist in the big-band Beacon edition, stayed close to the singing-wire twang and fishhook curls in Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's original, sprinting-jazz leads in "Bodhisattva."

But that album also marked the emergence of Fagen and Becker's fuller, wickedly funny control of the group as a bully pulpit of advanced songwriting and sardonic censure. "The Boston Rag" and "Your Gold Teeth," both on Side One, were a connected suite of deceptive relaxation: the former's checkerboard chord progression; the latter's curt dismissal of a gold digger in sleek jazz-fusion chops. "Show Biz Kids," opening Side Two, could have been written yesterday about viral celebrity ("Show biz kids making movies of themselves/You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else"), while the crisp funk in "My Old School" triggered a contradictory outbreak of frat-party dancing, in a song about nostalgia as an opiate, based on a real-life bust at Fagen and Becker's college in 1969. Everyone immediately sat down when the band braked into the classy but more obscure ballad "Pearl of the Quarter" – proving that, even at a classic-album show, some records are not yet loved all the way through, and history still has time to have its say.

Machine Gun Etiquette

There were actually two versions of the Damned, played by the same five musicians, during this two-set ride down the rabbit hole. The first was the Damned that emerged from punk, jittery with prog-rock nerve and irradiated with black-light psychedelia, on 1982's Strawberries and the shocking, 1985 U.K.-mainstream smash, Phantasmagoria. The second Damned was, as the '79 album title goes, all machine-gun etiquette: a rage of rude bamalama and embedded pop-song smarts that was a cartoon gas in its time but, with time and sense, now sounds as consistent and fundamental as the Clash and Sex Pistols hymnals.

Going backwards through the catalog made sense. The gothic acid-pop of "Grimly Fiendish" and the Damned's surprising U.K.-hit cover of Love's flamenco delicacy "Alone Again Or" would have felt anticlimactic coming after a rush of fuzz. The strict, rear-view momentum also showed how the band survived the passing of British punk's golden era – and a dizzying cycle of lineup changes – with convincing invention and stubborn will. "Stranger on the Town," from Strawberries, was high-stepping Sixties pop coated in fisticuffs of distortion, like something the Damned had pinched from a Motown outtakes shelf then dragged through a mucky London gutter.

The second-set blitz notably skipped the Damned's late-'77 album Music for Pleasure, an experimental flop that led to the departure of original guitarist-songwriter Brian James and Sensible's promotion from bass to front-line riffing on 1980's The Black Album. Sensible, who has been in and out the group almost half a dozen times, and Vanian, the only non-stop member across all four decades, now lead a Damned – with bassist Stu West, drummer Pinch and keyboard player Monty Oxy Moron – that carries the canon with snarky aplomb and proud, tightened brawn. Monty (I have trouble just referring to him as Moron) had nothing much to do in the end-game roar of "Neat Neat Neat," "Fan Club" and "1 of the 2" from 1977's Damned Damned Damned. So he just danced – a happy fury of wild Mozart hair and Three Stooges physique – along with everyone who was at CBGB in '77 or wished they were.

"We're back to 1976," Sensible declared after a cheerfully profane rant about the American presidential race, the state of his own nation and the brick-wall finish of "New Rose." "Can we stay there?"

If only.

Dweezil Zappa Freaks Out

It felt like thaw for a while. Early in his near-three-hour show at the Beacon, Dweezil paused to announce a very special guest in the audience: Bobby Zappa, Frank's younger brother, who stood up to a warm round of cheers. He also appeared to symbolize, just by being there, an advance to truce in the legal war that broke out this year between Frank's four children over the rights and future of his name and legacy. But later, before going into the encore, Dweezil announced the formation of a crowdsourcing fund to help him fight a new initiative from his younger brother and sister, Ahmet and Diva, who control the family business. One provision, Dweezil claimed, would not allow him to perform under his own surname without permission.

In between, Dweezil stuck to celebration, leading a precise and robust six-piece group through a loosely chronological tour of a Great American Songbook: the opening flush of doo-wop and dada from Freak Out!; a stroll forward through Frank's 1971 cinema lark, 200 Motels; mid-Seventies fan favorites from Over-Nite Sensation; and a heavy chunk of the Eighties opera Joe's Garage with Frank's starring vocalist in that decade, Ike Willis. A surprising special guest was the jazz guitarist Julian Lage, who stood toe-to-toe with Dweezil in the knotty Zoot Allures blues "Black Napkins," exchanging barnstorming solos that surely made Lage – largely unknown to this crowd – some new friends.

Dweezil carried that spotlight on his own at the end of the show, though not quite alone – picking luminous and anguished chimes from his Fender Stratocaster in the Joe's Garage instrumental "Watermelon in Easter Hay." The funereal beat suggested Dweezil, now 47, almost in seance with his father, in one of Frank's classic guitar showcases, struggling to explain how such a revolutionary legacy could become such a public spectacle. But the playing was Dweezil's gripping monument in the present tense, to the standards of invention set for him by his father, from childhood.

It was a good way to end a weekend of rewind – honoring the past while facing forward.