Steely Dan was never remotely fashionable during their 1970s heyday — nor, by all accounts, did they care one whit. Now, a dozen years after the last Steely Dan studio album, and 19 years since they last toured, they are back on the road … as glaringly anachronistic as ever. That may be why theirs is one of the hottest tickets and most refreshing shows of the summer.
Dan masterminds Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have always steered their own course: crafting jazzy, smart-alecky pop-rock tunes in the early ’70s when the mainstream favored pop mush, and crafting just as jazzy, nearly as smart-alecky pop-rock tunes now, when the mainstreamopts for Cypress Hill-style rap and Mariah Carey-style pap.
Or, to put it another way, when was the last rock show you remember that began with an overture?
Relying primarily on their Steely Dan hits, the duo and their 10 backing players offered two hours of challenging, lyrically stimulating music. Highlights included “Josie,” a slinky version of “Hey Nineteen,” a rearranged interpretation of “Reelin’ in the Years” and a joyous encore of “My Old School.”
In addition to the expected Dan tunes, the seamless (albeit at times soulless) show was seasoned with a few songs from Fagen’s 1982 solo album “The Nightfly” (“I.G.Y.” was a particular standout) and his current Becker-produced “Kamakiriad,” as well as two songs from Becker’s forthcoming solo debut.
The “Kamakiriad” songs fared especially well. Rather cold and pristine on the album, the songs from Fagen’s latest –“Tomorrow’s Girls” in particular — sounded kickier and a whole lot funkier live.
Given their absence from the road, it’s logical to assume some bold new insight or innovative concept compelled the stage-shy band to return to live venues.
Well, forget it.
Fagen and Becker looked and sounded at the Greek pretty much as you’d have expected they would’ve 18 years ago, if they’d toured.
Given that most of their songs were hits after they stopped touring, the lack of any audacious new vision hardly mattered. It seemed sufficiently novel to hear the extended musical breaks in most of the songs. Never mind that any jazz-fired improvisation appears to have occurred in rehearsals; this show, in keeping with Fagen and Becker’s reputation for perfectionism, seemed precisely calculated.
Still, given the sloppy musicianship and by-rote approach of so many pop acts today, Steely Dan’s high standards are downright refreshing.
And, who knows, maybe someone else will even pick up on the civilized idea of starting off their show with an overture, too.