Steely Dan took the stage at 9:25 PM, with their multimember band, including a four-piece horn section and backup singers, The Danettes, clad in matching little black dresses. Fagen followed. From the first verse of the swing-infused “Bodhisattva,” it was clear he was going to be a wild card, with The Danettes taking what seemed to be an ever-growing piece of the vocal pie.
Nonetheless, this fast-paced, super caffeinated jump-blues piece mobilized everyone. Bebop scales, but cloaked in a pop overcoat. The slightly fuzzed out rockabilly rhythm guitar was layered over by the persistence of the keys, which together escalated into a lush, frenzied fervor, as trombonist Jim Pugh and Guitatist Jon Herington traded solos. Keith Carlock held the groove on drums with an uptempo shuffle, culminating in an ecstatic crescendo.
As long-time Steely Dan fans, my date and I were reticent to confess our shared glances and raised eyebrows of uncertainty as to whether Fagan’s vocal chops could hold the act together, as a lonestar bandleader, although it is no secret that this has always been the band’s weak spot.
But, what may have been the necessary salt in the stew in earlier times, seemed more like a missed step, now. This started to become evident in the lyrically seductive, “Aja,” which found him frequently coasting under the notes. Nonetheless, this lush masterpiece of a song, “either an ode to LSD or to the beauty of life with a woman you love,” was carried by the band, as a whole. Soaked in Jazz chords and peppered with Chinese accents, but bound together with eastern tinged ligature’s, a serpentine meandering from soft and wavy, to frisky and playful. It’s an adventure in some far-away land, taking you through multicolored, imaginary landscapes where you’re first lost in reflective, rainy day musings, before finding yourself suddenly whirling through an Asian marketplace.
“FM,” “Time Out of Mind,” and “Kid Charlemagne” were standouts, as was the lesser known “Green Earrings,” which walks the edge between prog-tinged rock, and jazz funk. Delivered impeccably, and supporting its narrative of stealing, it captures both the deviousness and the thrill of the act, with its driving, supercharged rhythm. Punctuated with Thelonious-like, off-time beats, then caressed by a creamy guitar solo. Together, suggesting the twisted satisfaction of a deed accomplished, as the lyrics say: “Sorry, angel, I must take what I see.”
A fair lot of Fagen’s and Becker’s lyrics capture the tales of eccentrics and misfits; this has been duly noted elsewhere. But an equally interesting study is the mood that Steely Dan creates, through their varied and complex, but polished compositions — a curious sort of freedom… in spite of their characters’ woes, losses and lack of resolution in life, there’s always a delicious feeling of surrender, alongside the weariness. Melodies that are at once wistful and swollen with nostalgia, but warm and sensual, as their famous wu major chord effortlessly glides into that magical, and oh, so recognizable, Steely Dan dreamland.
Fagen and Co. rolled through a handful of radio favorites, like the playful pop riff of “Peg,” played mighty nicely, albeit sans Michael McDonald, whose warm backup vocals give the song its characteristic feel and depth of color, in the studio version. But the highlight was the paradoxically bright-toned (considering the subject matter of a dissolving relationships) “Black Cow,” with its layers of glossy textures and flirtatious saxophone, all intermingling with Fagen’s keys, like watercolors, seamlessly blending and playing with one another. Finishing the night was an encore that included “Reeling in the Years.”