By Doug Pullen
DETROIT – Funny thing about Donald Fagen. Used to be he never wanted to tour with Steely Dan, which was more of a songwriting and studio partnership than a living, breathing, touring band.
They made some of the greatest records of the pop era, but didn’t hit the road for 20 years.
But these days, you can’t keep them off the road. Steely Dan has toured several times — and gotten progressively better — since coming out of retirement in 1993.
Now (in 2006), at 58, Fagen’s on the road again, this time without partner Walter Becker but bringing with him most of the superb musicians who’ve backed them in recent years.
It’s his first ever solo tour, coming in support of Morph the Cat, released Tuesday; his third solo album but first in 13 years.
Morph’s the right word. The once-reluctant singer and keyboardist has evolved into a comfortable frontman, albeit one who sat behind an electric keyboard and spoke only occasionally to an appreciative, savvy audience of about 2,000 ardent Dan fans Thursday night at the Detroit Opera House.
Building on the momentum the Dan created with 2003’s excellent Everything Must Go album and tour, Fagen and his crack nine-piece band liberally sprinkled the nearly two-hour set with selections from all three solo discs, buffed up rarely and never performed Steely Dan gems and tapped his pre-Dan roots for covers of Jack Teagarden’s “Misery and Blues” and the Chuck Berry nugget “Viva Viva Rock and Roll.”
It all sounded so good. Fagen doesn’t do much onstage. He bangs rhythmically on his keyboard, cocks his head to the right and spits out his cerebral, literate stories about kiss-offs, sleep-ins, cold wars and wars on terror. But they’re so meticulously constructed, so smartly cinematic and so expertly fleshed out with tasteful articulation and quiet intensity by the band that showmanship didn’t really enter the equation.
“I love this town,” Fagen muttered about half way in, acknowledging a long-running love affair he and Steely Dan have had with the Motor City. He showed that love with a set of tightly woven jazz pop that reached back more than 30 years for “Pretzel Logic,” from the album of the same name, and “Home at Last” and “Black Cow” from Aja.
He also hauled out three songs from his first solo album, 1982’s The Nightfly, including a spot-on version of the bossa nova breakup song, “The Goodbye Look,” and a cuddly version of “Snow Bound” from 1993’s Kamakiriad.
“Brite Nitegown,” a rumination on death, fared the best of the three Morph songs he played, benefiting from the band’s slow-burn swing, while “What I Do” paid tribute to Ray Charles while offering romantic insights on how to “get that sugar to pour.”
Fagen poured it on without doing anything obvious, like dipping into Steely Dan’s hits (or even playing new single “H Gang”). For a band that follows the muse, not the market, anything less would have been a huge disappointment.