By Jay N. Miller
For The Patriot Ledger
BOSTON — If there’s anything better than hearing Steely Dan’s best music performed by the rock band, it has to be hearing it performed by an expanded 12-piece outfit, which is what 4,000 fans at Bank of America Pavilion in Boston were treated to last night.
The Dan, with principals Donald Fagen, 59, and Walter Becker, 57, didn’t break any new ground or spend much time with their later catalog. Last night’s 17-song show was more a heavily jazz-influenced trip through some of their best material, much of it from the 1977 album Aja, widely regarded as their most jazz-heavy album.
Guitarist Becker and keyboardist Fagen began playing rock together while students at Bard College in New York, and their knack for turning jazz, rock and funk into hooky pop songs made them big recording stars through the 1970s. On hiatus from 1981-92, they’ve done solo work and almost annual reunion tours, with a stellar cast of supporting musicians.
This summer’s band boasts some fine players, with longtime guitarist Jon Herington, drummer Keith Carlock, bassist Freddy Washington, and clavinet/electric pianist Jeff Young among the core band. Backup vocalists Carolyn Leonhart and Cindy Mizelle not only provide superb harmonies, they help fill out the lead lines. Best of all, the four-piece horn section really gives the Dan classics an added dynamic boost.
The set seemed to settle into a sizzling midtempo, funky jazz vibe, without ever bursting forth into catalytic rock. Plenty of groovy sizzle, in other words, without much actual fire..
After a swinging instrumental by the eight-piece core band, Becker and Fagen came strolling out onstage with the backup singers. Fagen, an unlikely frontman with his hunched posture and big sunglasses, spent the first couple numbers playing melodica when not singing.
Becker had just a couple of vocal leads, but his work on the quirky R&B of ‘‘Haitian Divorce’’ worked perfectly with its creeping funk tempo. Fagen led a fast-paced gallop through ‘‘Peg,’’ with the horn section making it the night’s most exciting tune.
The dark ballad ‘‘Babylon Sisters,’’ from 1980’s Gaucho album, was an interesting choice. ‘‘Dirty Work’’ featured the two backup singers trading verses. The funky jazz-rock of ‘‘Josie’’ showcased the rhythm section.
‘‘Aja’’, ‘‘FM,’’ and ‘‘Kid Charlemagne’’ comprised an irresistible set-ending trio. A loping ‘‘Pretzel Logic’’ and the buoyant ‘‘Bodhisattva’’ were the encores.
Sam Yahel’s Organ Trio provided a half hour opening set of light, funky jazz just right for this night.