By John Young
“Who makes the traffic interesting, rescues a dreary Sunday?”
Fans of Steely Dan’s new album Two Against Nature know that the answer to that musical question is, “Janie Runaway.”
Performing for 9,302 at the Post-Gazette Pavilion Sunday night, Steely Dan itself made it worth driving to Burgettstown for an extraordinary Sunday show. Playing two sets of new songs, revamped radio hits and tunes picked to please die-hard band devotees, a 13-piece version of the Dan dazzled concert-goers with both musicianship and song craft.
The way to build a great live band is from the bottom up, and the Steely Dan rhythm section was the group’s greatest asset. Drummer Ricky Lawson and bassist Tom Barney made sure that the music didn’t float away in a cloud of ineffectual, light jazz.
Lawson’s solo during the coda of “Josie” maintained the song’s swaying groove while Barney added some much-needed melody to “Jack of Speed.” The duo actually turned many a tune surprisingly funky.
Front-man Donald Fagen contributed some subtly bluesy playing, too. He treated his Fender Rhodes electric piano like the percussion instrument it is, banging out the big hooks of “Bad Sneakers” and the complex chords of “Hey Nineteen.” Fagen’s voice sounded less raspy and nasally than its recorded version, as well, keeping songs like “Deacon Blues” especially sinewy.
Fagen’s musical partner, guitarist Walter Becker, wasn’t quite as soulful. His playing was undeniable nonetheless, ranging from a strummy solo on “Bodhisattva” to wild, tasty fills that enlivened “Josie.” Becker even sang a few tunes, giving “Monkey in Your Soul,” in particular, an appealingly gruff tone.
As great as the playing was, the band’s songs were of at least equal stature. Casual fans embraced the hits, especially big guns like “Peg,” “Kid Charlemagne” and “My Old School” that the group used to bring the show to its climax. New tracks like “Janie Runaway” and “Cousin Dupree” held their own against the more time-tested fare. Fun surprises often turned into highlights, whether it was an instrumental cover of the Henry Mancini piece “Hank’s Pad,” a weird, angular take on “The Royal Scam” or the swinging version of “Boston Rag” that opened the show.
It’s good that the music was so dynamic because no one will mistake Fagen or Becker for showmen. Fagen kept introducing selections as “Another song from the ’70s” and drolly called “Black Friday” “An old blues.” Becker handled the introductions of each band member before the close of the first set, and while his comments were generous, they were hardly revelatory or very entertaining.
No matter. As each song blasted into orbit, no amount of commentary could have added to each one’s appeal. Steely Dan is most definitely back, as ironic and melodic as ever and with an even funkier edge.