The irony of the situation was just perfect for the most ironic duo in rock and roll – Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – better known as Steely Dan.
You see, the acclaimed jazz-rockers retired from the road back in the early ‘70s ostensibly due to Fagen’s stagefright but most likely also due to the difficulty in reproducing their increasingly meticulous studio arrangements live on stage. And yet three decades later we find this studio band on the Wang Theatre stage in an attempt to recreate their most challenging albums – “Aja”, “Royal Scam” and “Gaucho”. How perfect.
The Dan actually started slowly returning back to the stage in the ‘90s with Fagen’s incredible Rock and Soul Revue. A full reunion and two solid albums later they improbably managed to turn themselves into a viable touring act without sullying their sterling reputation as master craftsmen.
“Gaucho” is Dan’s most mellow album, seemingly more suited for a Wednesday show than a Friday nighter (They surprised Wednesday’s crowd with an “Aja”/”Royal Scam” double-header,) but it contains some of the band’s finest songs.
After an opening jam by their excellent 11-piece backing band they launched into “Gaucho” with the familiar strains of ‘Babylon Sisters.’ Fagen’s voice – never the band’s strong suit – had aged noticeably since I last saw them in ’96(?). He was even more nasaly than I remembered, but nostalgia, interesting vocal phrasings and judicious use of the back-up singers helped him to compensate on the more challenging singing parts.
‘Hey 19’ featured tremendous trombone work by Jim Pugh and was unmarred by Fagen’s lyrical flub at the beginning. ‘Glamour Profession’ was fine, although it’s one of the weaker tracks on the album. ‘Gaucho’ showcased the talents of alto saxman Walt Weiskopf and guitarist Jon Herington. ‘Time out of Mind’ was great but suffered slightly for wont of Michael McDonald’s iconic vocals. The less said about the dreadful ‘My Rival’ the better.
And of course the album performance closed with one of the greatest songs in their catalog, the subtle and amazing ‘Third World Man’. “Gaucho” is an album that dates back to my vinyl collecting days and I can still vividly remember my friends and I dissecting ‘Third World Man’ through literally hundreds of spins. Just hearing ‘Third World Man’ live was well worth the price of admission.
The rest of the setlist contained more tracks that only Dan nerds could love: “Daddy Don’t Live…” featuring lead vocals by Walter Becker; “Godwhacker”, “I’ve Got the News”, “Home at Last” with some excellent lead guitar work by Becker; a new arrangement of “Show Biz Kids”; a beautiful version of “Parker’s Band” with only the three female singers on lead vocals and “Deacon Blues”. After the band intros Jon Herington shone once again on ‘Peg’; ‘Josie’ opened with a great keyboard intro by Jim Beard and more tasteful lead work by Becker. The set closed with the upbeat “My Old School.”
After a brief break, the band returned for a triple-shot encore: “Kid Charlemagne” (oh, how I wish we saw “Royal Scam” with Larry Carlton on guitar), a fan pleaser in ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ and finally, a fun, cheesy version of ‘Dirty Water’ to stroke the Bostonians.
All in all, Steely Dan puts on an excellent show that plays to their core fanbase. Casual fans need not apply. Sure, Fagen’s voice struggles but his keyboard and melodica work is brilliant. Becker’s guitar playing, always overshadowed by Denny Dias and Larry Carlton back in the day, is amazing. And the band is perfect, with drummer Keith Carlock, alto sax Weiskopf and guitarist Herington deserving special attention.
The only downside was the geriatric crowd that remained seated throughout most of the performance. Let’s just say that if you were under 40 or female, you probably weren’t at the Wang Center last night.