Too Much of a Good Thing from Steely Dan

Originally published on July 14, 2000

By Tom Moon
Philadelphia Inquirer

There was a time, in the ’80s, when those obsessed with the enigmatic studio-pop outfit Steely Dan would have settled for any chance — a three-hour “Bad Sneakers” marathon — to see their idols perform live.

Now, six years into a comeback built around regular touring, the thrill of watching guitarist Walter Becker and keyboardist Donald Fagen lead
well-compensated session musicians through the hallowed hits has dimmed a bit.

It’s not a lack of energy: Thursday at the Waterfront Entertainment Centre, the principals and their 11-piece Steely Dan Orchestra 2000 interpreted warhorses “Peg” and “FM” with a fervor some acts reserve for their latest material. It’s not the vocals, either: Though he struggled with the high notes in the leaden “Glamour Profession,” Fagen spent most of the night rehabbing familiar melodies with jazz-singer pirouettes, curt shouts, and a repertoire of withering smirks.

The first set suggested one reason latter-day Steely Dan can be tiresome: overkill. The Dan catalog contains some of the smartest reworkings of the classic 12-bar blues form in pop history, among them the cosmic jump “Bodhitsattva,” the apocalyptic swing “Black Friday,” and the adventures of a malcontent known as “Jack of Speed” from the band’s latest, Two Against Nature.

The band tore through them, plus the similarly structured “Josie,” in the first 10 songs. And while it was nice to hear Becker sneaking wry guitar quips between the lines, the pieces lost some of their idiosyncratic character grouped so closely. Even diehards found themselves longing for the odd album track or an adventurous cut from Nature.

The second set, which opened with a lugubrious “The Royal Scam,” was much stronger. This time Steely Dan alternated underappreciated sketches (“Monkey in Your Soul,” sung acerbically by Becker; “Dirty Work,” performed in a round-robin of three female vocalists) with the radio songs fans expect, such as “Deacon Blues” and “My Old School.” Though some were showy and slick, there were moments when the band, which was auto-pilot precise all night, surpassed the tension of the recordings. The shoop-shooping “Kid Charlemagne” moved with the jittery urgency of drug dealers in flight, while “Don’t Take Me Alive” was transformed from a simple funk backbeat into a chilling exploration of paranoia and desperation.

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