Drug Dealers. Drunk Drivers. Mysterious phone numbers. Apocalyptic last stands. The shadowy characters that inhabit the fringes of society are full front and center in the world of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, making Steely Dan the most subversive act to get significant radio play. Hell, the anti-hero of “Kid Charlemagne” was practically the blueprint for Walter White. The history of the band is underscored by their increasing obsession with meticulous playing and arrangement, slowly withdrawing from playing on the radio to focus exclusively on studio creation.
Which is substantially different from today. Mark II finds them as virtual road warriors, and since returning in the early 90s, Fagan and Becker have made a routine of filling regal indoor theatres and roomy outdoor amphitheatres for a few dozen dates each year. Tonight finds them at the first of two sold-out shows, and they teased the crowd a bit by waiting until their crack band had churned through the jazz/blues standard of “Teenie’s Blues” before taking the stage. Easing gently into the laconicly velvet-barbed jabs of “Black Cow,” the band would turn about face with the surging dynamics of “Aja,” the title track of the record that all your friends used to see whose parents’ stereo systems sounded the best.
Steely Dan always made it a priority to surround themselves with ace musicians, and it was never clear if Becker was on the providing end of some of those neckhair-raising solos, or if it was the work of Denny Dias or Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter or hired guns like Elliot Randall or Larry Carlton. Most of tonight’s heavy lifting was taken care of by Jon Herington, who also doubled as the musical director, but Becker did more than passable turns on “Green Earring” as well as the relative obscurity of “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More.” Perhaps because if its place deep in the catalog, casual fans may not realize that unlike tonight, Becker didn’t sing on the original. After hearing it, I think he should stick to the fretwork.
Sometimes the band took some liberties with arrangements and styles, especially on the funky version of “Show Biz Kids,” and “Dirty Work,” where Carolyn Leonhart took the lead vocal that David Palmer originally sang. The razor-sharp guitar solo on “The Boston Rag” was dulled a bit, but Herington played it safe on the iconic solo of “Kid Charlemagne.” Messing with that would have been a crime against nature. Fagen reminded me of a Jewish Ray Charles, with his distinct head movements behind the keyboard and mic mimicking the great artist. Though he never had a particularly “classic” voice or range, it was highly effective at conveying the emotional content behind the songs, and he sounded as fine as ever. The two seemed to have comfortably fit into this phase of their career, and it’s evident that a lot of people support it.
I’ve seen some strange double bills, and this one ranks up there. Stylistically, there’s not a lot of overlap between Steely Dan and Elvis Costello, but it was an inspired pairing despite the differences. Touring with the Imposters, his long-time sidekicks of ex-Attractions Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve on keyboards along with bassist Davey Faragher, Costello took no time at all to rattle off some classics before most of the paying customers were settling into their seats. The blue-eyed soul of “High Fidelity” was a welcome surprise, and the spittle-flecked rant of “Radio Radio” is still a worth rant/anthem (Ranthem? Hey, let’s go with it). Despite the pedigree, the band wasn’t totally clicking tonight. Thomas seemed rushed at times, Nieve had some really pointless calliope fills where they trampled all over the song, and Costello tended to start signing his verse too late, needing to rush the delivery so he could catch up before the next one came along. Classics like “Alison” and “Watching The Detectives” were well-received, as was the cod reggae of “Everyday I Write The Book.” I’ve never understood the rampant appeal of “Pump It Up, ” which as fist-raising calls to action go falls squarely in the stodgy monotonous end of the range, but Costello recovered with a raging and still relevant “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding.”
Photos from the evening: