Steely Dan is Heaven in Concert

By Gary C.W. Chun
Honolulu Star Bulletin

For the baby boomers who nearly filled Blaisdell Arena to capacity Saturday night, two hours of Steely Dan — with intermission — was absolute heaven.

Never mind that they had to wait nearly 30 years for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to return to the Hawaii concert stage. Or that Fagen, Becker and their crack band did only two songs from that earlier time — “Parker’s Band” from “Pretzel Logic,” the upbeat tribute to bebop jazz icon Charlie Parker (ably sung by the female backup singers); and “My Old School,” which along with the later-written “FM” were ecstatically received encore numbers.

Because, you see, from then to now — when Fagen and Becker took a lengthy hiatus from touring to become one of the most exacting recording studio acts around — the duo did a little album called “Aja,” which became, oh, just one of the baby boomers’ absolutely favorite albums of the late ’70s.

And Steely Dan, throughout a U.S. summer tour that ended here, liberally sprinkled two sets with spot-on renditions of the title cut, “Black Cow,” “Peg,” “Home at Last” and “Josie.”

This represents the Dan at its peak, and Fagen and Becker smartly surrounded themselves with peak professional New York City-based musicians who could perform and expand on those time-honored songs.

They started the show proper with an elegant and stately “Aja,” featuring a stretched-out solo by tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf. That set the tone for the evening — an effortless, almost leisurely stroll through some of Steely Dan’s repertoire, mainly sung with the knowing edge in Fagen’s trademark voice.

Seeing the now-elder (but still cool-to-be-wearing-shades) Fagen singing songs from “Aja” and its companion album “Gaucho” reminded me of how Steely Dan always left fans feeling a part of the hedonistic ennui of the smart and hip, their fabulous if empty lifestyle and their drugs of choice — the infamous Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian of “Hey Nineteen,” for example. That feeling of accessible hipness was especially felt during the back-to-back performances of “Black Cow” and “Babylon Sisters.”

The latter was especially well-executed. The creeping stealth of the song’s melody always matched up well with its perfect lyric encapsulation of the seductive Hollywood game — those hot Santa Ana winds swirling around those “so fine, so young” starlets shaking what their mamas gave them. The lei-bedecked female chorus of Cindy Mizelle, Carolyn Leonhart and Cynthia Calhoun were a fine and needed counterpoint to Fagen and Becker’s vocals throughout the night, and they were justly rewarded with bouquets of flowers at concert’s end for a final job and tour well-done.

Steely Dan’s attention to a song’s texture was also evident during “Josie.” While Maui resident Walter Becker wasn’t the strongest singer or best lead guitar player on stage (that was left to Fagen and Jon Herrington, respectively), he made do with what he had, and his tangy Telecaster lines contrasted well with the four-horn arrangement.

But it was Keith Carlock’s drum solo that was a pleasant surprise. Drum solos are usually notorious exercises in indulgence that bring concerts to a dead halt, but Carlock kept his short and to the point. His crisp and deftly played attack on his kit was rewarded with a standing ovation.

Another highlight was the addition of “Everything Must Go” into the set list. The title track from the Dan’s latest album is another of those excellent Fagen-Becker collaborations, with Weiskopf’s sax solo injecting some hopeful light and heat into a lyrically sardonic scenario of a failing business.

And it proved that Steely Dan will never succumb to being an “oldies act.” Fagen and Becker are too cagey for that. It’s just that you gotta be patient with them. Let’s just hope it won’t take another three decades before the Dan returns to town.

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