For guys once known for their aversion to touring, Steely Dan leaders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have gotten downright comfortable on stage. (This just might be the only band that’s toured more in their comeback than the first time around.) “Just trip out on these hits/the groove that never quits/at the Steely Dan Show,” they advise, and that just about gets it right.
The groove won out over the hits in the first of Steely Dan’s two nights at the Universal Amphitheater. Focusing on tunes from ’70s favorites “Aja” and “The Royal Scam,” Becker and Fagen reworked the songs to showcase their wonderful 11-piece band. With arrangements that are complex but never overly busy, songs such as “Peg,” Hey Nineteen” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” (never that far from jazz in their recorded versions) are stretched out with solos from the four-man horn section, guitarist Jon Herington and drummer Keith Carlock, whose subtle, swinging, highly musical work was a constant highlight. Even the trio of background singers had a chance to step out on “Parker’s Band.”
The last was done to rest Fagen’s voice, which showed the strain of touring by the latter half of the evening’s second hourlong set. But Fagen at his most scratchy is better than Becker, whose painful attempts at singing marred the dusky lope of “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” and “Haitian Divorce.”
But as they noted in “FM,” the evening’s final number, what really matters is that the “mood is right.” And Wednesday night, it was.