By Laura Sinagra
New York Times
NEW YORK — Those meticulous jazz-rockers Steely Dan built a career on seeming coolly unfazed. But the solo efforts of its principals, Donald Fagen and his snarkier counterpart, Walter Becker, prove what we all knew: that insouciant affect is usually the result of peer pressure. We can only be thankful that these two egged each other on to produce epics of yacht-rock detachment like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Deacon Blues.”
Mr. Fagen has been more revealing of doubts and fears on his solo albums. This is particularly true of “The Nightfly” (1981), the title song of which admits to the fantasy of an indelible alter ego, a bitter yet humane late-night radio D.J., weary hero to jazz heads and call-in kooks. The mix of sardonic and sad marks both Mr. Fagen’s 1993 middle-age meditation “Kamakiriad” and his new “Morph the Cat,” on which he examines death — his mother’s, his own and, of course, idealism’s — through the absurdist device of a ghostly cat peering into the windows at shaky post-9/11 paranoiacs.
On Tuesday at the Beacon Theater, there seemed to be a particular theme of discontent to Mr. Fagen’s set list, which kicked off with Steely Dan’s “Here at the Western World” and included, from “The Nightfly,” the biting Reagan-era recollection of 60’s hope, “New Frontier.” Though he skipped the new album’s lament of fascism, “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” and the lecherous ode to an airport guard, “Security Joan,” Mr. Fagen’s inclusion of older Steely Dan songs like “Pretzel Logic,” with its “days are gone forever” wistfulness, and “Home at Last” with its observation that “danger on the rocks is surely past,” took on a sly resonance.
One pointed choice, “Third World Man,” from Steely Dan’s 1980 album “Gaucho,” built into an elevating jam by Mr. Fagen’s crack band. On this song, as well as on a cooking version of “The Goodbye Look,” the stinging, percussive guitarist Wayne Krantz traded swoon-worthy solos with his spiraling, melodic counterpart, Jon Herington.
The drummer, Keith Carlock, and the bassist, Freddie Washington, provided a funky undercurrent, though Mr. Carlock’s astonishing fills caused some gasps from the audience. Mr. Fagen’s keyboard playing, at first almost inaudible because of a strange room mix, mainly served to spur the band. At times he even emphasized this by shifting to toy piano and roller-rink organ tones.
Though Mr. Fagen’s voice has lost a little of its smart-aleck attack and precision fade, his female background singers provided a thrust that compensated for his scratchy tone. As was required, they stayed away from soul belting and went with sexy, straight-toned power. This was especially true on the revved-up version of “F.M.,” another Steely Dan hit. The mostly male crowd may have craved more of the hit parade, but it seemed to yell out mainly for rarities — for fear, perhaps, of looking the least bit uncool.