By Kevin McKeough
CHICAGO — If rock ‘n’ roll is a vintage convertible barreling down a back road from Memphis to New Orleans at 2 a.m., Steely Dan is a European sedan cruising the Pacific Coast Highway at dusk, its driver musing darkly on the foibles of humanity.
Polished craftsmanship, technical precision and cool sophistication were Steely Dan’s trademarks throughout the 1970s, and those traits remained at the fore as they performed vintage hits and material from their first studio recording in 20 years at the Allstate Arena Saturday night.
The songwriting team of guitarist Walter Becker and keyboardist Donald Fagen fashioned a percolating blend of pop, jazz and R&B that made Steely Dan’s music a staple of FM radio.
On Saturday, the likes of “My Old School,” “The Royal Scam” and “Peg” combined syncopated rhythms, shimmering keyboards, biting guitar licks, sassy horn arrangements and the lustrous harmonies of three female vocalists. With its headlong beat, descending horn line, and dueling guitar and piano interlude, “Bodhisattva” provided an early showcase.
Fagen was a frumpy but enthusiastic presence, bopping and swaying his head as he sang tart melodies in a voice grown more pinched and nasal. Aside from toneless turns at the microphone on “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City” and “Monkey In Your Soul,” Becker confined himself to unobtrusive rhythm guitar and the occasional jazzy guitar solo.
Their low-key presence and heavy reliance on their band made for skilled but faceless music, at times reinforcing Steely Dan’s image as a studio band. The limits of their devotion to arrangement and technique were apparent in the material from Steely Dan’s new CD, Two Against Nature. Their arid melodies and flattened grooves sunk “Jamie Runaway,” “Jack of Speed” and “Cousin Dupree.”
Ironically, many of Steely Dan’s vintage songs seemed more contemporary than the new material. The withering social commentary of “Black Friday,” “Kid Charlemagne” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” seemed all too relevant in the era of NASDAQ, Ecstasy and the Columbine shootings.
Becker and Fagen’s best work has a decidedly mean, anti-social streak. In articulating the cynicism of the Watergate era, though, Steely Dan was the perfect band for its time, allowing rebellious youth to retain an anti-establishment attitude even as the music’s sleek veneer helped them navigate the transition to adulthood.
That sleekness has helped Becker and Fagen’s music wear well, even if its bite no longer packs as much venom.