By Gabriel Sheffer
LOS ANGELES — With no less than 13 musicians onstage at the Universal Amphitheatre on Thursday night (10/2/03), Steely Dan was a formidable ensemble that proved virtuosos know how to rock too. Now back on the road with their second studio effort in three years, Steely Dan — the band that refused to tour at the height of its popularity in the ’70s — hit the stage and delivered its unique brand of taut yet laid-back jazz-funk throughout a two-hour performance. The combustible baby-boomer audience offered Walter Becker and Donald Fagen a standing ovation the moment the two took the stage, as their band jammed out behind them.
Opening with 1977’s “Aja,” Steely Dan cruised through a pair of one-hour sets that featured a mix of old favorites like, “Babylon Sister,” whose opening lines — “Drive west on Sunset to the sea” — drove the SoCal crowd berserk, to newer material, including the title track of this year’s “Everything Must Go.”
Throughout the evening, plenty of solos from the horn and rhythm section rounded out each song, with particularly impressive performances coming from drummer Keith Carlock on the playful “Josie,” and guitarist Jon Herington on the reggae-inspired “Haitian Divorce,” off ’76’s “The Royal Scam.” Occasionally, these solos got in the way of the songs themselves; regardless, neither the audience nor the musicians seemed to care.
While the music stayed true to Steely Dan’s fusion of jazz, rock and funk, the visuals, displayed on several screens above and around the stage, included such disparate images as graffiti, floral prints, psychedelic light shows and Roman architecture. Somehow, it seemed to work with whatever song the band was playing.
Singer Donald Fagen was in a relaxed and loose mood, his voice sounding as if it hadn’t aged a bit since the group’s heyday. Often, Fagen introduced songs by saying things like, “Right now we’d like to go back to the ’70s.” And the crowd responded emphatically each time. Highlights included a spectacular version of “Peg,” punctuated by Tom Barney’s popping bass, and the hit “Kid Charlemagne,” which brought much of the crowd to its feet.
With the final two encores, “My Old School” and “FM,” Fagen and Becker seemed in awe of one another. “My partner for 30 years,” exclaimed Becker at one point, “Donald Fagen!” They clearly appreciated the devoted audience, many of whom likely listened to “the Dan” back in their high school days.
On Thursday night, Steely Dan offered an evening filled with solid playing and solid tunes — something as cool in 2003 as it was in 1977. It’s a good thing they’re on the road this time around.