Only two acts this decade have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and also won one of the three major Grammy Awards. U2 is one, Steely Dan the other. The latter’s Grammy win — album of the year in 2000 for their reunion disc “Two Against Nature” — bought Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who had stuck to ’70s glory on reunion tours, a grace period to demonstrate their commitment to becoming again an active, working unit that tours and records in the 21st century. The current Think Fast Tour links the end of the band’s initial run with a handful of recent numbers, wholly focused on groove-oriented light funk tunes that Becker can talk-sing through. It is the most musically rewarding edition of Steely Dan since their decision tour in the mid-1990s.
Since the last Steely Dan album, 2003’s funky but forgettable “Everything Must Go,” Fagen has recorded and toured as a solo act, and Becker has released a solo recording (“Circus Money” in June). The intangible chemistry of the duo, not to mention the superior quality of the songs they do together, will always give Fagen and Becker a leg up on any solo projects — yes, even “Nightfly” — and the current show drives home that point quite well. That they play for more than two hours and devote only about half the show to the records the audience overplayed when they were in college in the 1970s is admirable. It’s hard to say they have been this adventurous in the past.
“Josie,” “Peg,” “Babylon Sisters” and perennial encore “FM” are, of course, in the set and played astutely, but Steely Dan’s first four albums are represented by only two songs — “Show Biz Kids” and “Parker’s Band.” Both stand out as they don’t fit the evening’s motif, which, more than ever, attempts to show a singular throughline from jazz funk’s early days to Steely Dan’s later years.
As a performing unit — music director Jon Herington and his mates have been “Steely Dan” for anywhere from one to eight years — the current edition comes across as the strongest Becker and Fagen have assembled. Herington, a guitarist, and organ-piano player Jeff Young are the key not-so-secret weapons here. They duplicate the lines played by Becker and Fagen, fill in holes when the leaders take a secondary position on their instruments and keep the momentum rolling steadily. The horn section has a unique role, re-creating the sound of the records but also shattering the sterility of those re-creations with warm and inviting solos, particularly Walt Weiskopf’s tenor sax break on “Gaucho” and Michael Leonhart’s trumpeting on “Glamor Profession.”
Steely Dan soon returns to Southern California, playing Honda Center in Anaheim on Aug. 4.