“H Gang,” the most fully conceived tune on Donald Fagen’s first solo disc in 13 years, didn’t make it into the Steely Dan co-head’s L.A. show Monday. A shame, really, as that’s the one song on “Morph the Cat,” released last week by Reprise, that shows he still has the ability to bounce horns, guitars, piano and female voices around a nuanced groove and create compelling listening. Without it, his show became one pleasant but unchanging groove.
Fagen’s show was what should be expected of him: slick and professionally delivered music, with two deft guitarists (Jon Herington and Wayne Kranz) ensuring a gripping musical perf. His sardonic delivery matched the lyrics perfectly, and the musicians proffered intriguing extended solos; it’s Steely Dan without the hits — and that’s where the problem lies.
Fagen, through song selection, could put to rest the idea that his compositions are all essentially rewrites of late-period Steely Dan. That he chose to play, quite well mind you, “Black Cow” from “Aja” was telling: Six more tunes in the show sounded like mediocre variations of that one theme, and for one half-hour block in the middle of the show, Fagen seemed to never ask his drummer to alter the tempo even slightly as they politely went through “The Goodbye Look,” “Third World Man” and “Mary Shut the Garden Door.” Playing the new album straight through would have made more sense; this career overview didn’t make his music seem all that special.
“Brite Nitegown” was a nice piece of bright funk, but the story about how W.C. Fields used the phrase as a metaphor for death was more interesting than the actual tune. Ninety-minute set, extended by a two-song encore, closed with a reading of Steely Dan’s “Black Friday” that was gritty and not all that concerned with duplicating the record. It wasn’t necessarily the song that was such a winner, it was the approach, a bit of rough and tumble to shake up the sonic sterility. He should shake up the songs more often — it looked like fun.