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Steely Dan Brings The Show Biz Kids To Merriweather Post Pavilion

August 3, 2011

Steely Dan is one of the few bands in rock history, alongside the Beatles and R.E.M., that reached its creative and commercial peak during a period when it was purely a studio act, opting out of touring altogether. Steely Dan’s founding braintrust of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen stayed off the road from 1975 to 1980 while crafting most of Steely Dan’s best loved music, seeking the kind of perfection from session musicians that they couldn’t seem to get from their band onstage. But the duo have been virtual road warriors since reuniting in the ‘90s, and judging from their show at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Tuesday night, the difference is simply that they’ve now got an airtight band they’re proud to play onstage with.

The umpteen-piece band, with horns out the wazoo, an ace rhythm section, and a trio of backup singers, was on full display from the jump on Tuesday, showboating on an instrumental piece for a few minutes before Becker and Fagen even took the stage. And once the frontmen did arrive, the band went straight into a solo-heavy rendition of “Your Gold Teeth,” and then the title track from 1977’s Aja, the apex of Steely Dan’s jazz and art-rock ambitions. But the band know that that their catalog of hooky FM radio hits is too undeniable to ditch entirely in favor of saxophone solos, so they soon moved onto “Black Friday,” with a slightly slower shuffle than usual, and “Hey Nineteen.”

Donald Fagen was visited by the ghost of Ray Charles on his last solo album, 2006’s Morph The Cat, and on Tuesday night he seemed possessed by it, sitting behind his piano in sunglasses with posture and body language that frequently recalled Charles. His voice had sounded a bit weaker and lacking in some of its essential character on later studio recordings, but live the 63-year-old sounded great, having finally grown into the older man he often sounded like in his twenties. Walter Becker compensated for his lack of singing parts by delivering a couple of droll monologues that left little doubt of how much he contributes to the subversively funny lyrics Fagen sings. At one point, Becker had me in stitches simply by listing his bandmate’s many instruments and accomplishments and then emphatically adding “favorite color: unknown.”

Throughout the two hour set, Steely Dan continually moved between those two dominant modes: jazzy showcases of their incredibly talented sidemen, and straightforward renditions of their timeless singles. Of course, the band has more hits than they could fit into one night, so they invariably had to pick and choose from their catalog, and not always to the most crowd-pleasing result — the only two albums in the Steely Dan discography that went completely untouched were two of the most popular, 1974’s Pretzel Logic and 2000’s Two Against Nature. Some songs had dramatic or subtly effective changes in arrangement — a whole new tempo for “Show Biz Kids” or “Dirty Work” refashioned as a showcase for the female backup singers. And sometimes the drums were juiced up with a little extra funk or forward momentum to make “Time Out Of Mind” or “GodWhacker” really pop.

As the night wound to a close, Steely Dan started ramping up the size and frequency of hits they were rolling up, slamming from “Josie” to “Peg” to “My Old School” and then bringing the hyped audience to a new peak with “Reelin’ In The Years.” After returning briefly for another uptempo favorite, “Kid Charlemagne,” Becker and Fagen left the stage one last time, once again leaving their backing band alone to blow their horns extravagantly for a few minutes, and show off how great they can sound even without one of the greatest songbooks in popular music to lean on.

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