Originally published on Sept. 21, 1993
By David Menconi
Raleigh News & Observer
CHARLOTTE — Steely Dan is a band that has both no context at all, and all the context in the world.
For the most part, Steely Dan didn’t exist outside the studio during their ’70s heyday. They never played live except for a few brief tours in 1973 and ’74. Instead, Steely Dan’s presence came from their rite-of-passage omnipresence in collegiate circles. If you went to college between 1975 and 1984, chances are good that Steely Dan was a big part of your personal soundtrack.
This combination of universality and individual poignancy made Steely Dan the ultimate ’70s band. It also gives their first concert tour in 19 years (which made its only North Carolina stop at Charlotte’s Blockbuster Pavilion Sunday night) a strange resonance.
Being in the audience was akin to taking part in a group flashback, because much of the show got over on the sheer volume of individual music-induced memories. I kept expecting to wake up and find myself back in a University of Texas dorm room with headphones on. But no, that really was Donald Fagen and Walter Becker playing their sleek fuzak on an actual stage in front of 13,500 people.
The evening got under way with a 10-minute instrumental medley of “The Royal Scam,” “Bad Sneakers” and “Aja,” played by the backing band. Then Becker and Fagen walked out from opposite sides of the stage, shook hands in the middle and settled in behind their instruments for “Green Earrings.”
Singer/keyboard man Fagen looked like your aging hipster Uncle Mort, smirking behind vampire shades and swaying stiffly to the beat during each song’s copious solos. It would have been perfect if Fagen had strapped on an accordion (a portable keyboard was as close as he got), but he was still the epitome of ironic, simulated cool.
By contrast, guitarist Becker looked strangely out of place — like a dentist indulging a weekend hobby that has gotten out of hand. Becker plays an important collaborative role in the studio (he produced Fagen’s current solo album, Kamakiriad), but his presence onstage seemed largely superfluous. He only sang two songs from his upcoming solo album and played few guitar solos, leaving most of the guitar work in the capable hands of the flashy Drew Zingg.
Several songs had inventive rearrangements, with saxophones doubling the guitar hooks on “Bodhisattva” and “Josie.” The most radically altered song was “Reeling in the Years,” in an almost unrecognizable world-beat version.
Generous as the show was at close to two-and-a-half hours, some of Steely Dan’s best-known songs were missing, including “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” But Fagen hinted that this tour might not be a one-time thing when he told the crowd, “We’ll see you next time.”