Steely Dan has never been the most user-friendly of bands. For most of its original incarnation, core members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were notoriously shy about taking the stage at all — and while that reticence faded with the launching of Steely Dan version 2.0, the crew invariably exuded an air of “have it our way, not yours” in concert.
That may be changing, if the band’s current run of shows is any indication. Playing all-request nights and devoting programs to classic albums — like Friday’s airing of the cult favorite “The Royal Scam,” they’ve grown positively interactive, and the presentation is all the better for it. This perf was particularly eventful, thanks to the presence of guitarist Larry Carlton, who played on the original album and offered interjections — particularly the stinging solos in “Kid Charlemagne” — that added palpable tension to the Dan’s customarily cool and calm mood.
Fagen and Becker fed off that energy, ramping up the edginess of “Don’t Take Me Alive” and the subtle angularity of “Haitian Divorce,” a tune that made the most of the sharp, in-sync horn section. Fagen — just two days removed from a respiratory illness that forced postponement of the run’s first night — wasn’t in his best vocal form, but the extra layer of rasp suited the material just fine.
The post-“Scam” portion of the program proved equally dynamic, with the spotlight squarely on Fagen and Becker’s idiosyncratic facets. Rather than the jazzy latter-day hits, they dipped deeply into their formative material, digging out an affably tangled version of “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” and a flighty take on the title track of “Pretzel Logic” — a disc that merits a full-on presentation in its own right.
Fire, rather than airiness, was the order of the night, as evidenced by spirited versions of “Black Friday” — one of the more upbeat apocalyptic odes extant — and the Supremes’ chestnut “Itchin’ in My Heart.” That paradigm shift was akin to a switch from white wine to overproof rum — bringing a kick and a burn sure to stay with the aud for a good long time.
Steely Dan brings its tour to Los Angeles’ Gibson Amphitheater Aug. 21-25.