Steely Dan Remains Razor Sharp

After 30 years, the music is still at the top

By Mark Bialczak
Syracuse Post-Standard

Walter Becker decided he liked the state fair.

“I bet you, dollars to doughnuts, that our state fair is the best fair in the state,” Becker told the crowd.

Donald Fagen knew he was in the land of “lots of scary rides,” he reported.

Leave it to the two halves that have made up Steely Dan since “Can’t Buy a Thrill” came out in 1972 to deliver the reliable goods. The Dan at the State Fair Grandstand on Sunday night was still the master of the understatement and quirky as all get out.

They closed this year’s grandstand series with a smooth and hip collection of songs served up by a big jazz band great enough to play the clubs of the Big Apple.

With a four-piece horn section, drummer, keyboardist, guitarist, bassist and three backup singers working with Fagen and Becker, they sounded every bit as slick and precise as they have on all of their cherished albums. And that’s saying something, because Fagen and Becker have always doted on every studio note with much consternation and great passion.

That translated into two sets of magic that had the crowd in a constant buzz.

Fagen’s voice sounded as crisp and strong as the early days, and Becker’s guitar work rang like a well-tuned bell in the center of town square.

They combined old hits with hot stuff from this summer’s album, “Everything Must Go.”

It was wondrous to hear the new stuff, “Godwhacker” and “Lunch with Gina” continue the vaunted Steely Dan lineage. The pair came back from a long studio hiatus three years ago with “Two Against Nature.” Now it seems like they’re happy together. On stage, they threw each other many compliments.

It appeared they, too, enjoyed giving their spin on great songs. “Aja,” “Time Out of My Mind,” “Godwhacker,” “Caves of Altamira,” “Black Cow,” “Babylon Sisters,” “Slang of Ages,” “Peg” and “Home at Last” comprised a first set high in cool quotient.

But the star duo proved they don’t take themselves too seriously with the number selected to start the second set.

The whole band, without Fagen and Becker, took the stage and sang a song titled “Steely Dan Show,” with the words flashed on a big screen for everybody to join along.

“Just trip out on these hits, the groove that never quits,” they sang.

When Becker and Fagen slinked back out to join the rest of the crew, Fagen admitted, “It’s kind of a tribute to us, written by us, actually.”

“Janie Runaway,” “Hey 19,” “Haitian Divorce,” “Lunch with Gina,” “Parker’s Band,” “Josie,” “Kid Charlemagne” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” led to a powder-keg encore of “My Old School” and “FM.”

Becker thanked the band for giving “110 percent.”

The cliche can be forgiven because of the work of those great musicians: Syracuse native Walt Weiskopf and Doobie Brothers band alum Cornelius Bumpus on sax, Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Jim Pugh on trombone, Ted Baker on piano, Jon Herington on guitar, Tom Barney on bass, Keith Carlock on drums and Carolyn Leonhard, Cindy Mizelle and Cynthia Calhoun on vocals.

Fagen loved the band, too, accurately telling all the ensemble would be “swinging like a pendulum.”

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