Rain Can’t Dull Edge of Steely

By Jim Farber
New York Daily News

Steely Dan’s sneaky music has always demanded a lot from its fans. But at the band’s performance Monday (July 3, 2000) at Jones Beach, Long Island (NY), a physical challenge also came into play.

At the local stop on group’s first tour featuring new material in 20 years, rivers of rain drenched the theater before the show, while water spat, dripped and slithered down on fans for the duration of the night’s three-hour concert. As a result, a third of the seats went wanting, a rare occurrence for a group whose shows at the Beach this Friday and at PNC Bank Arts Center Saturday are sold out.

Oddly, the shrunken crowd of die-hards lent the night an unintentional logic. After all, Steely Dan has always rated as the ultimate cult band who, through supreme improbability, wound up a ’70s pop sensation.

What other band of the modern era has managed to rack up Top 40 hits with songs marked by complex chord progressions, eccentric time changes, and the most acid-tongued lyrics a literary deviant could hope for?

To help it all go down easier, Steely’s guiding lights, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, know their way around a pop hook and have always made sure to employ musicians worthy of their tricky material.

At Jones Beach, second guitarist Jon Herington provided a pert counterpoint to axe-man Becker. While the latter specializes in sleek and glistening leads, Herington put in more bite. He excelled in forceful numbers like “Peg,” “Kid Charlemagne,” or “My Old School,” where he navigated the maze of horn punctuations with spirit. Becker delivered the perfect tickle of guitar for “The Royal Scam” and added graceful touches to “FM.”

The band included four horn players, three backup singers, and a second keyboardist, who delivered a Gershwin-like flourish at the end of a new song, “Janie Runaway.” The fresh material from the band’s recent LP Two Against Nature has all the innovation, wit, and perversion of their peak. “Cousin Dupree” stood out. A smart blues ditty, it may be the most hummable song ever written about incest.

As composers, Fagen and Becker ran the stylistic gamut this night. They made stops at jump-jazz (“Bodhisattva”), R&B-soul (“Dirty Work”), funk (“Night By Night”), blues (“Daddy Don’t Live In New York City No More”) and sublime pop (“Bad Sneakers”). Singer Fagen delivered them all in his dry, blues-inflected voice. He hit the perfect melancholy note in “Deacon Blues” (which does in five minutes what it took the movie American Beauty two hours to do). He also nailed the sad wit of “Hey, Nineteen,” his parable about the perils of dating under your age.

Even the most drenching rain couldn’t make material this sharp seem soggy.

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