By Owen Gleiberman
Greeting each other with a handshake at the center of New York City’s Madison Square Garden stage, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen seemed less like the pop stars Steely Dan than like a couple of reformed dweebs exchanging a brusque hello at their 25th high school reunion. Considering that they haven’t toured together as a band since 1974, the duo’s recessive anticharisma seemed strangely fitting. From the first shivery chords of “The Royal Scam” (a wry comment on the very idea of nostalgic rock shows?), it was clear that the real stars of Steely Dan’s 1993 reunion tour aren’t Becker and Fagen, exactly, but the songs themselves, those gorgeously crafted pop confections (“Deacon Blues,” “Bodhisattva,” “Babylon Sisters”), all sleek surface and clandestine passion.
Surrounded by an 11-person band that meticulously re-created the soulful rock-jazz textures of their Aja-Gaucho period, Becker and Fagen eased through two dozen of their most popular tracks, including a revamped, jazzified “Reelin’ in the Years” and a smashingly soulful “My Old School.” Becker, looking like a suave middle-aged Zen computer hacker, performed two songs from his upcoming solo album (his voice a crooning baritone), but otherwise stepped into the spotlight only to drop an occasional bit of ’70s-stoner humor, which wafted right over the heads of the youngish baby boomers in the audience. Fagen, by contrast, had at least a modicum of stage presence. Wearing shades he never once removed, he sang in his insistently urban desperado whine, rocking back and forth with his portable electric piano like an acerbic cross between Ray Charles and John Lurie.
As songwriters, Becker and Fagen were once celebrated for their offbeat irony and distance. The true irony is that, in an age of disappearing melody, they seem more and more like the George and Ira Gershwin of the ’70s. When music is this timeless, the word nostalgia doesn’t apply.