Discerning Steely Dan observers pride themselves on being able to identify the distinctions that separate the years and assemblages that turned out an armful of classic rock in the 1970s. The leaders of the Dan, however, favor a blurring of those distinctions in this, their first tour in support of a new album in 26 years. They fashion a mellow groove that, at its best, displays the timelessness and uniqueness of their work; taken at its worst, they show themselves as having influenced no one beyond the smooth jazz movement of the last decade.
Perhaps the greatest example of this was in “Dirty Work,” a tune from 1972’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill.” Upon its release, “Dirty Work” was a prime illustration of the band’s subversive pop qualities, a fine one-two punch at the start of the album paired with the hit single “Do It Again.” For this tour, the song has been reworked to showcase the three fine backup singers — Carolyn Leonart, Cynthia Calhoun and Victoria Cave — and revamped sonically to give it the stop and start qualities of the songs that appeared on “Aja,” the album that would re-define and bring mega-success to Steely Dan at the end of the 1970s. It worked in giving the song a refreshing ambiance, and up against a new number such as “Cousin Dupree,” well, who but the informed could pinpoint the year of its origin?
(Several times during between-song banter, band leaders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen coyly made reference to inability to determine exactly which songs came from which albums.)
Part of the lure of Steely Dan in this go-round, the third tour in three years since Becker and Fagen regrouped, is the stellar new album, “Two Against Nature” (Giant). While that should certainly draw some new fans beyond those demanding an oldies rehash, the steep ticket prices — $ 100 and $ 125 in the orchestra — suggests the Dan seems intent on attracting only the die-hards.
Sadly only three tunes from the new disc crept into the set list at Tuesday’s sold-out show, and none made any bold statement about the condition of the Dan — only that Misters Fagen and Becker are sharp instrumentalists with a studied knowledge of classic jazz song structures. Still, this was an enjoyable evening that served the fans well.
Evening was split into two sets — 70 and 50 minutes — and the second worked far better in terms of pacing and song selection. Round one opened with a tepid reading of “The Boston Rag” that exposed all sorts of problems: amplifiers sizzled, the bass rumbled through the sound mix and Fagen’s voice was decidedly strained.
Redemption came quickly with tune two, the iconoclastic rocker “Bodhisattva” (these two songs need to be flopped), with Fagen finding his vocal bearings and the sound mix getting squared away. At the half-hour mark, the group effort was united and strong as they gave blissful perfs of “Josie” and “Black Friday,” with Becker turning in a fine guitar solo.
Second set opened with a Henry Mancini instrumental, followed by rich and clear versions of “The Royal Scam,” “Deacon Blues” and the new song “Cousin Dupree.” Becker and Fagen made their statements with an uncompromised sharpness and a gentle guiding hand; with lesser talents at the helm, these songs would come off dull and uneventful.
As much as the Steely Dan foundation is song-based, the evening got an overdose of wonderful guitar solos from Becker, Jon Herington and guest Denny Dias, whose playing shaped the band over the course of its first four albums. Drummer Ricky Lawson is among the best in the biz, and his blend of steadiness and flash fit in wonderfully.
To supplement their rather ordinary stage presentation — Becker doesn’t leave his stage right position, and Fagen on occasion strapped on a portable keyboard to get out of the front-and-center spotlight — the band was effectively supported by random projections (a winter scene, stock market ticker , psychedelic swirls) beamed onto two cutouts at the rear of the stage.