A Pleasant but Not Powerful Hit Parade

By Chuck Crisafulli
Los Angeles Times

DEVORE, California — The records of Steely Dan are triumphs of studio technique and jazzy craftsmanship, and there’s probably no better way to test high-end stereo equipment than to crank up Aja or Countdown to Ecstasy.

Their music becomes more problematic in live settings though, and in a pair of hourlong sets at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion on Wednesday, the studio wizards failed to cast a powerful spell.

The Dan brain trust–keyboardist-singer Donald Fagen and guitarist-singer Walter Becker — did produce some slickly satisfying sounds. And, backed by an eight-piece band and three backup singers, the duo clearly enjoyed bringing their estimable catalog of cryptic hits to an enthusiastic crowd.

But the darker edges were gone from quirky, complex works such as “Deacon Blues,” “Chain Lightning” and “Babylon Sisters” — the music was simply pleasant rather than provocative.

Becker’s offhand guitar licks added some spark to several songs, and “Hard Up Case,” from his forthcoming solo album, had the band playing lean and mean. The black-clad Fagen, in trademark shades and sporting a scraggly beard, added some fire to “Black Friday” and “Tomorrow’s Girls.”

But too many other tunes were run through in a smoothed-over, perfunctory fashion. Not until the energetic encores of “My Old School” and “FM” did the band really cut loose.

Last year’s tour was notable for being Steely Dan’s first in 19 years. This year the group continues to deliver the same polished Steely hit parade. Although there’s no denying the craft and style in Becker and Fagen’s music, the show Wednesday was more countdown than ecstasy.

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