A packed house — in all its paunchy, gray-haired, facelifted glory — greeted Steely Dan with raucous applause Saturday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall. And the band — 11 musicians and singers backing up co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — delivered the goods.
Two hours. Great playing. Solid singing. A crowd-pleasing set list that was well short on surprises. This is what Steely Dan fans can count on in the band’s second incarnation. During the first, their ’70s hey day, Becker and Fagen sequestered in the studio, gathering the best players they could find and indulging their perfectionism in a series of landmark LPs. They quit touring in 1974, just two years after their debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill.
Since re-forming in the mid-1990s, the Dan has transformed itself into revue of well-drilled road dogs who know better than to burden paying customers with too much esoterica. That's why on Saturday night they played exactly one song from a post-2000 album: “GodWhacker” off Everything Must Go. (As in every Steely Dan show I’ve seen, this latter-era tune was a cue for the audience to head for the restrooms.)
Much of what gives Steely Dan songs their spirit is the inimitable whine in Fagen’s voice. (It’s also what fuels Dan haters, of which there are a legion.) The 65-year-old’s singing has lost a fair amount of its character, and tends to get swallowed up by the band. Great lyrics are neutered. “Is there gas in the car? Yes there’s gas in the car,” a line from the night's encore, “Kid Charlemagne,” got turned over to the audience.
Although Steely Dan notched several hit singles in the ’70s, their devotees consumed and internalized the albums from beginning to end. This would seemingly provide a lot of leeway in terms of building a set list. Yet Fagen, Becker and company played it safe on Saturday. After a fast-swinging band warm-up, Gerry Mulligan’s “Blueport,” the partners emerged and the ensemble kicked into the percolating “Gold Teeth” (I would have preferred “Gold Teeth II.”) The epic “Aja” followed, the band’s commanding romp through the song’s various sections and Keith Carlock’s drum flurries earning the group its first standing ovation.
The next hour or so was consistent — solid, but not much in the way of either highs or lows. “Black Friday” benefited from an exuberant shuffle groove, while “Home at Last” was kind of a buzzkill. Becker sang lead on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” his guttural croak apparently giving Fagen’s pipes a rest. A slight re-imagining of “Razor Boy” — the first time the band has played it on tour — showcased the three female back-up singers. Although certainly not ambitious, it was a pleasant diversion.
Like any seasoned touring revue, Steely Dan 2013 knows how to issue the Big Finish, which came in the form of “Josie,” “Peg,” “My Old School” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” Adding a curio to the end, the band remained after “Kid Charlemagne” to play Nelson Riddle’s “The Untouchables Theme.”
“Blueport” (Gerry Mulligan cover, band only)
“Your Gold Teeth”
“Show Biz Kids”
“Time Out of Mind”
“Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More” (Walter Becker lead vocal)
“Home at Last”
“I Want to (Do Everything for You)” (Joe Tex cover, band intros by Becker)
“My Old School”
“Reelin' in the Years”
“Untouchables Theme” (Nelson Riddle composition)