By Thomas Conner
The fastidiousness of Donald Fagen is well-documented among his band’s considerable contributions to rock ‘n’ roll. In the studio for Steely Dan records, six-hour sessions were common just to polish 12 bars of rhythm guitar. Noted session musicians would be brought in at great expense to play jazzlike guitar and sax solos — solos Fagen already had written and carefully notated for them. This control freakishness gave Steely Dan’s hits and album tracks their celebrated (and sometimes derided) slickness and meticulous swing.
Saturday night at the Chicago Theatre, however, Fagen — at 58 and on his first ever solo tour — showed signs of mellowing with age, of letting go of the little stuff. At least he made it look that way.
Midway through his less-than-two-hour set, he paused and slumped at his center-stage electric piano. “What do we do now?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question, but the lively audience was quick to answer by shouting requests. “Oh, right there, I heard it!” he said, then turned to his band and seemed to call the next tune (“Third World Man”). Donald Fagen appeared to — gasp! — take a request.
It may have been an act (though given the varied set lists I’ve seen from the tour thus far, probably not), but it was indicative of Fagen’s feistiness while free of his longtime Steely Dan cohort Walter Becker. By himself, Fagen clearly wants to get his groove on. His solo albums (one per decade since 1982) have been driven by backbeats more prominent than on most Dan albums before the turn-of-the-century reunion.
This was clear Saturday night whenever the set veered from solo work — powered by metronomic drummer Keith Carlock’s sparse kit and Freddie Washington’s gurgling bass — to a handful of Dan album tracks, each of which opened up the full range of Fagen’s nine-piece band. The Dan tunes breathed a bit more, the sound was fuller, richer, broader, and the ensemble sounded like an ensemble. That was the goal of Steely Dan, after all — to combine ’50s R&B with the careful arrangement of Ellington’s big bands. Fagen on his own, though, tends to shrug off the Ellingtonia and get down to basics.
That’s not a criticism of his solo work, just a distinction — hopefully a helpful one, given that so many critics write about Fagen’s solo outings as indistinguishable echoes of Steely Dan. Every time I’ve seen Steely Dan live, Fagen has slunk onto the stage, a sheepish member of a large band. Saturday night, though, he strutted onto the stage, plopped down at his keyboard and, raising a single finger high into the air, jabbed down the first notes of “Green Flower Street” like a call to order, or arms. The tight interplay of the rhythm section on that song set the tone for the evening. This was a groove-centric rock ‘n’ soul revue.
Most of Fagen’s song selections were delightful surprises — “Teahouse on the Tracks,” “Home at Last,” “Goodbye Look,” “FM,” even a left-field cover of “Mis’ry and the Blues” from 1930s Oklahoma City-Chicago musician Charlie LaVere. The new CD, Morph the Cat, was represented but not dwelled upon (just “Brite Nitegown,” “Mary Shut the Garden Door” and “What I Do,” featuring Chicago harmonica player Howard Levy). His encore was just one song — again, Fagen slumped and seemed unsure what to play. “I feel like just playing something fast,” he said and launched the band into Chuck Berry ‘s “Viva Viva Rock ‘n’ Roll” with a scorching solo from guitarist Jon Herington.
Therein, too, lies another sign of Fagen’s relaxed grip. Of the two guitarists onstage Saturday night, Herington and Wayne Krantz, only the former seemed up to Fagen’s previous finicky standards. Krantz’s solos often went too far afield of the melody, even the countermelody, and filled the theater with a dizzying number of notes. His delivery seemed clumsy, too, as if his left fingers were bandaged. Herington, though he didn’t get as many solos, was superb — clean, crisp, remarkably fluid and with a more rockin’ tone that suited the somewhat restless spirit of the set. His playing was sharp enough to inspire hopes he’d romp into “Reelin’ in the Years.” Alas, no.
The show was so groove-tastic, though, that two attendees remarked after the show that they wished the tour was playing smaller venues — so they could have danced. Here’s to Fagen’s return next time in Uptown — the Aragon? the Green Mill?