By John Lappen
LOS ANGELES — A mere three years after their Grammy-winning triumph of “Two Against Nature,” a megasecond in the lifetime of a band that virtually ignored the call of the live stage in the ’70s and ’80s, Steely Dan has returned with both a vivacious new album (“Everything Must Go” on Reprise Records) and another tour.
Both are bringing down the house; the album receiving ecstatic reviews and the tour sold-out wherever they pop up.
Their two-night stand in Los Angeles, a place that Dan keyboardist/lead vocalist Donald Fagen referred to without much enthusiasm as “a place we used to live,” was a religious experience for the hard-core Steely Dan fan and a great concert for those who like and appreciate well-played ditties that are sonically pure and tightly wound.
On past tours, Steely Dan was sometimes too polished for its own good; it lacked a panache that the songs had but the performance lacked. On this night, everything was cookin’ just fine, thank you. In fact, it is probably the best the band has ever sounded and played live. It all starts, of course with Fagen and his longtime partner in musical crime Walter Becker on guitar and — surprise! — one vocal as well. Normally a bit stiff live outside of their studio element, both artists seemed as loose as they’ve ever been onstage. Not that they were jumping around and doing cartwheels, but, at this juncture, Becker and Fagen in particular, seem to be having more fun playing their wondrous catalog than ever before. It was more the vibe than their actual physical presence as the music swung with a feel and groove that wasn’t always present in previous Dan L.A. shows.
Being joined by a very talented eight-piece band that breathed new life into the old songs and delivered as one on the new ones didn’t hurt. It’s as good a band as Fagen and Becker have performed with in a long time. While each musician stood out, including the three backup singers, the rhythm section of drummer Keith Carlock and a very funky bassist was outstanding. A young cat, Carlock is a prodigious talent who was all over the place; his playing is inventive and meticulous without being intrusive.
The band opened with an hourlong set that featured a stunning version of “Aja” along with gems like “Babylon Sister” and a soaring “Peg.” “Aja” revealed the band to be on the mark from the start. Steely Dan’s trademark jazz-pop was infectious and tight, clean and impeccably played. The groove was sublime but very evident on just about every song. Not only does no other band on the planet sound like Steely Dan, no other band could carry it off as well as this band does even if an imitator existed.
The second half of the set was another hour-plus affair, closing with a reading of “FM” that had the appreciative crowd howling for more. They were denied the pleasure of another tune, but they didn’t go home cheated. Sleep well knowing that Fagen and Becker remain at the height of their prodigious power both as songwriters and now as performers as well.