By Vit Wagner
TORONTO — You can take Walter Becker out of Steely Dan. But you can never take Steely Dan out of Donald Fagen.
While Fagen, the 58-year-old singer-keyboard player for the 1970s jazz-pop pioneers, performed a nearly sold-out set last night minus his other half, guitarist Becker, the effect was more or less the same.
True, a substantial portion of the set list was culled from the three solo albums Fagen has recorded over the past quarter century, including the freshly minted “Morph the Cat,” which arrives in stores today.
Ultimately, though, there is little stylistic difference between the new disc and the two Steely Dan albums released earlier this decade. And the same could be said of the live performance, a predictably polished affair expertly executed by Fagen, five accompanists and two backing singers.
Like recent Steely Dan shows, the program was less an opportunity to flog current product than it was a career-spanning, two-hour showcase of the singular brand of fusion that bridges Fagen’s musical artistry, whether the songs technically belong in the Steely Dan canon or not.
Only “Misery and the Blues,” a cover of a more traditionally jazzy, 1954 Charlie LaVere song, and an encore rip through Chuck Berry’s “Viva Viva Rock ‘n’ Roll,” seemed forged from a somewhat different template.
Anyone with a less than expert background in the catalogue might be excused for mistaking “I.G.Y.,” which received a rousing rendition near the close of the show, for classic Steely Dan. Fans, of course, know it’s from “The Nightfly,” the 1982 solo outing that was as much a centerpiece of the proceedings as “Morph the Cat.”
There was enough from the new album to encourage a trip to the store, with “What I Do,” based on an imaginary conversation with Ray Charles, and “Brite Nitegown,” which takes its inspiration from W.C. Fields, standing out.
Any cravings for actual Steely Dan were met by several offerings, including back-to-back numbers from 1977’s “Aja,” “Home at Last” and “Black Cow,” followed later by “FM” and “Pretzel Logic.”
Fagen, who missed some shows recently due to illness, was in solid voice. Full credit, too, to the supporting cast, including Walk Weiskopf’s soaring sax and Michael Leonhart’s frequently muted horn.
Guitarists Wayne Krantz and Jon Herington, both of whom play on the new album, took turns lacing the tunes with solos, Krantz providing funky counterpoint to Herington’s equally sure-handed passages.
Maybe it wasn’t Walter Becker. But it was close enough to Steely Dan to fool anyone, possibly even Fagen.