By Jon Pareles
The New York Times
As timing goes, now would hardly seem to be the right moment for the first Steely Dan tour since 1974, which came to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. Pop music has veered sharply away from everything the group’s core, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, cared about most.
Instead of Steely Dan’s cool, subtle, meticulous, elegantly ironic songs, matching oblique lyrics to harmonically ambiguous jazz chords, the rock mainstream has turned toward noise, simplicity and blunt impact. Where Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen could agonize for months over perfecting a smooth transition, hip-hop has brought sudden jump-cuts instead. The band’s influence has survived mostly in pop-jazz tunes that saunter along, half-heard, on background-music radio stations. Steely Dan camouflaged its subversive edge a little too well.
But the fact that there’s nothing like Steely Dan around has built up a demand; its Madison Square Garden show sold out in 40 minutes to an audience that included few people under 30. Mr. Fagen, Steely Dan’s singer, recently released an album, Kamakiriad (Warner Brothers), that was produced by Mr. Becker, and Mr. Becker is working on his own album and collaborating on songs again with Mr. Fagen. Mr. Becker even sang two new songs, revealing a plaintive voice that had been unheard since the band’s first albums. Onstage, the revived Steely Dan doesn’t care about being unfashionable; the band plays as if its private musical sphere is the only one worth inhabiting.
Mr. Becker, on guitar, and Mr. Fagen, on keyboards, have always been wise guys, and the show had some typically inside jokes; opening with an instrumental version of “The Royal Scam” (a reference to reunion tours in general?), pointing out that the hall wasn’t the original Madison Square Garden (lest anyone carp that the band wasn’t the original Steely Dan), introducing Mr. Fagen as Tristan Fabriani (the pseudonymous author of liner notes on the band’s first album, “Can’t Buy a Thrill” from 1972) and Mr. Becker as Gustav Mahler. It didn’t play the song everyone might have expected: “Do It Again.”
Hearing the songs again only underscored Steely Dan’s range and finesse. Steely Dan wrote about aging (“Hey Nineteen”), psychotic killers (“Third World Man”), stock-market crashes (“Black Friday”), Orientalism (“Bodhisattva”) and even more enigmatic subjects with telegraphic economy; the entire lyric of “Green Earrings” includes only 47 words, yet suggests a complex tale of romance and betrayal. (“The Fall of ’92,” a new Becker-Fagen song sung by Mr. Becker, was uncharacteristically blunt, calling the George Bush Administration “Nazis in Washington.”) Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen also prized musical ingenuity, making every detail gleam; the few sustained notes in the introduction to “Josie,” for instance, create almost unbearable suspense, while “My Old School” proves that it’s possible to steal from soul music without simply copying it.
The show was generous, with two sets adding up to more than two-and-a-half hours of music, including some instrumentals by the band. The touring group, with the guitarist Drew Zingg, has polished the songs in the style of the group’s 1977 album Aja (MCA); the group includes three saxophonists who lace the songs with riffs and responses and take dramatic solos. Steely Dan concentrated on its later material, including most of Aja, although only its 1974 masterpiece, Pretzel Logic (MCA), was unrepresented.
Many of the songs the band chose are based on the blues; verses vamp on the basic chords, then choruses take off on unlikely chromatic tangents. Songs from Kamakiriad also used that strategy, but with less distinctive melodies than the older songs, though the rhythms still cruised along. Steely Dan’s principals were and are connoisseurs of grooves; each vamp, even at slow and medium tempos, was lifted by a different syncopation, with Peter Erskine on drums and Tom Barney on bass both providing muscle and finesse.
For most songs, the group recreated arrangements from the albums, stretching them with solos for Mr. Zingg, Warren Bernhardt on piano or the saxophonists (Cornelius Bumpus, Chris Potter and Bob Sheppard). But the band couldn’t resist tampering with “Reelin’ in the Years,” from 1972; it moved the song’s famous twin-guitar line to saxophones, and where that line had repeated the saxophones skewed it to imply stranger, jazzier harmonies. The audience roared approval for the change. It may be a reunion tour, but with Steely Dan the payoff is in craftsmanship, not nostalgia.