By Paul Olson
CHICAGO — Steely Dan founder/vocalist Donald Fagen’s concert at the storied Chicago Theatre wasn’t exactly the sound of surprise — this isn’t a jamband he’s fronting and anyone who came expecting loose, improvisational flights of fancy was destined to be disappointed. But the full house knew pretty much exactly what to expect, and they got it: Fagen on electric piano fronting a whip-tight ten-piece band; consistently satisfying performances of songs from Fagen’s three albums; slick, gleaming Fagen/Dan grooves; some Steely Dan tunes; and finally, a chance to throw their approval at the architect of a wildly successful, revered and unique jazz/rock hybrid sound.
While this was Fagen’s first-ever solo tour in support of his splendid new CD Morph the Cat, anyone who’s attended a Steely Dan concert in the last few years would recognize the general band format and even some of the players. The group consisted of two guitarists (Wayne Krantz and Jon Herington), a second keyboardist (Jeff Young, who also sang backup), two backup vocalists (Cindy Mizelle and Carolyn Leonhart), saxophone (Walt Weiskopf), trumpet (Mike Leonhart), drums (Keith Carlock) and bass guitar (Freddie Washington) — and, at center stage, the bandleader. Hunched over his electric piano, jerking his head in time to the group’s oiled yup-funk with his trademark unergonomic posture of shoulders almost grazing his ears, the ectomorphic Fagen resembled no one so much as The Simpsons bartender Moe Szyslak, but the audience threw American Idol-style adoration his way from the moment he walked onstage.
The band started off with “Green Flower Street,” one of three consecutive tunes from Fagen’s 1982 solo debut The Nightfly. A reviewer doesn’t have to stretch for imagery to describe how it and the rest of the evening sounded: if you have the album, put it on. It sounded like that — arrangement-wise, no one was trying to reinvent the material.
It also sounded, well, pretty great — the band made the anxious uptempo choogle of “Green Flower Street” sound like they’d been playing it for years; they were, unsurprisingly, very tight. A note-perfect “The Nightfly” followed, enlivened by a crackling Krantz guitar solo and a new coda in which Weiskopf’s tenor lines were decorated by some entwining Rhodes filigree from the leader. Not that it needed any improvement on the original — it’s one of my favorite songs and here I simply fell into stupefied rock-concert fave-tune ecstasy. “New Frontier” might have been even better, as the crowd erupted at the sound of the song’s beloved vamp figure before Washington and Carlock simply murdered the groove (Washington was, to my ears, the MVP of this talent-crowded stage). There’s something odd about hearing a fellow audience member sing along with lines like “Till I finally make up my mind/To learn design and study overseas” — but it was a good kind of odd.
“Teahouse on the Tracks” (from Fagen’s 1993 Kamakiriad album) isn’t his best tune by any means and its lyrics actually stray into banal territory — not something often suggested about his arch, sharply-etched words. But its great horn chart was deftly covered by Weiskopf and Mike Leonhardt (Leonhart’s open-horn solo also negotiated some tricky group stop-time sections) and Cindy Mizelle’s solo vocal on the tag was pure bliss. “Brite Nitegown,” Fagen’s new tune commemorating the Grim Reaper, overstays its welcome by a couple of minutes on Morph the Cat, but the same arrangement live was effervescent, steamroller funk with a searing solo from Krantz that would have fit in just about anywhere on Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam.
Still, the Steely Dan songbook loomed large in the expectations of the crowd, and when Fagen started the Rhodes intro to “Home at Last,” the response was unambiguous. Fagen changed the vocal phrasing on the choruses to keep it interesting as Carlock worked the tune’s classic ride-cymbal groove and Young contributed some lovely organ that was surpassed only by his solo on the next tune, “Black Cow,” another hit from Dan’s Aja. Weiskopf’s tenor solo here was one of the evening’s high points and Fagen’s vocal betrayed no boredom with this twenty-nine-year-old song — “drink your big black cow and get out of here” sounded as irritably dismissive as ever.
The set continued with an initially nondescript, then ferociously swinging “The Goodbye Look,” a fire-and-brimstone take on Steely Dan’s “Third World Man” featuring Fagen’s best vocal of the show (Mizelle and Carolyn Leonhart’s vocals were equally fine) and, from the new album, “Mary Shut the Garden Door,” introduced by the leader as “one of my paranoid songs.” This one had some monstrously authoritative bass guitar from Washington and a winning tenor solo from Weiskopf over Fagen’s minimal, almost Basie-like single-note Rhodes plonks.
Local harmonica whiz Howard Levy joined the band for “What I Do,” Fagen’s deep-soul conversation with the ghost of Ray Charles, which was followed by “Misery and the Blues,” a Jack Teagarden tribute with an unerring kick/snare pulse from Carlock and reach-for-the-moon, high-octave trumpet solo from Michael Leonhart worthy of — and, perhaps, paying tribute to — Teagarden’s longtime employer Louis Armstrong. The set closed with a leave-em-happy version of Steely Dan’s “FM,” and after a brief encore of Chuck Berry’s “Viva Rock and Roll,” that was it — fourteen tunes, ninety minutes. The fans, of course, wanted more — but one suspects that this is the maximum concert length to ensure that Fagen’s never-invulnerable vocal chords, which showed strain occasionally, make it through a tour. Great though the band is, the leader’s the essential member, and he has to sing.
Fagen and band played some classic songs — and some new ones — impeccably. He’s never been about anarchy or abandon — there’s always a veneer of cool in his work — but those restrictions understood, this is probably the funkiest touring band playing this spring. This is very much a group worth seeing live.