Donald Fagen, Cool and Partly Steely

By Dave McKenna
Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Donald Fagen never had much “Louie Louie” in him. Still doesn’t.

There is little obvious difference between the output of Steely Dan, the franchise that Fagen and Walter Becker founded in the early 1970s and have occasionally reassembled, and the solo works Fagen presented at the Warner Theatre on Monday.

Much of Fagen’s recorded product, with and without Becker, is processed to such a degree that one could believe it was intended to be played while sitcom credits roll, or between floors. But a whole lot of folks, including the mostly middle-aged fans who cheered every note at the Warner, never regarded Fagen’s stuff as Muzak to their ears.

After all these years, it seems obvious that were it not for the fantastic commercial success of the almost anti-rock records he and Becker released, programmers at mainstream FM stations might never have foisted subsequent smooth-jazz purveyors from Chuck Mangione to Kenny G on the masses.

To the undevoted listener, the only thing that separates those artists’ material from much of Fagen’s oeuvre is lyrics. And Fagen, 58, appeared to confess from behind his electric keyboard that he’s worried his growth as a lyricist has stalled. In introducing “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” a new tune he says was inspired by the 2004 Republican convention in New York, Fagen called it “the usual paranoia song” that he’s been “dealing for some years now.”

But in the live setting, that number, and all the tracks Fagen presented from his new CD, “Morph the Cat,” carried substantial musical weight, thanks to the blatantly talented nine-person ensemble he assembled for this tour. Drummer Keith Carlock and bassist Freddie Washington made the title track far funkier than the studio version (on which they also played). And guitarist Jon Herington’s solo on “What I Do” cut through the quiet-storm ambiance of Fagen’s organ.

Fagen occasionally dipped into, as he called it, “the Steely Dan file,” but avoided anything poppy or too familiar. The crowd went wild with each oldie (including “Here at the Western World,” “Black Cow” and “Pretzel Logic”) and didn’t seem to mind that Fagen ignored the shouted song requests. “Louie Louie” wasn’t among them.

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