By Christopher John Treacy
Don’t expect Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen to smile until the show’s almost over.
Letting up any earlier would entail blowing his cool — not his style. And in the end, Fagen’s demeanor means that Steely Dan gets to remain unsoftened and undiluted with age. Sure, Fagen’s getting old, all gray and pot-bellied with lousy posture. But last night in front of a two-thirds-full house for the first of two shows at the Bank of America Pavilion, clad in a black blazer and shades, he conjured the image of a disgruntled New York Jew channeling Ray Charles. Outrageous as it sounds, the miracle of Steely Dan is that he consistently pulls it off.
After a breezy instrumental intro from their 10-piece Heavy Rollers band, including phenomenal bassist Freddie Washington and keyboardist Jeff Young, Walter Becker and Fagen simultaneously slithered onstage, Fagen armed with his Melodica (basically a reed-harmonica built into a hand-help keyboard), to serve up the funk-laden double whammy of 1980’s “Time Out of Mind” and the much more recent “Godwhackers.”
It was immediately noticeable that Fagen’s in better vocal form than at last summer’s iffy showing at the Tweeter Center — either that or a less crystal-clear sound mix flattered him. But he seemed to know when to let able backup gals Carolyn Leonhart and Cindy Mizelle do the heavy lifting, and the transitions between them were significantly more graceful. As long as the contrast between his deadpan meditations and the girls’ sexy soul remains intact, nothing is lost in the shift.
“Peg,” “Babylon Sisters,” “I Got the News,” “Josie” and “Aja” all came together like clockwork, the latter spiked with drummer Keith Carlock’s masterful grasp of the tune’s tricky timing and tangential passages. Tenor sax player Walt Weiskopf added an adventurous, fluid solo to “Hey Nineteen,” while Becker and Jon Herrington remained musically ambidextrous, trading off between rhythm and lead guitar throughout.
Leonhart and Mizelle sang lead on “Dirty Work,” adding a delightful feminine touch, and Becker took the reigns to croon the island-hop-infused “Haitian Divorce.”
Cruising through “FM” and “Kid Charlemagne” toward the shows end, Fagen allowed himself to crack a sly grin. For those paying attention, it was also a silent acknowledgement that underneath his cool black-on-black exterior exists a rock ’n’ roll vet with a sharp sense of humor.
Sam Yahel trio opened with a sturdy set of organ-fueled jazzy soul — the perfect match.