Steely Dan Reels in the Glory Years

By Paul Kosidowski
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The 21st century still holds the Me Decade in ironic reverence, as any Abba or AMC Gremlin enthusiast can testify.

But Steely Dan, the precision-engineered and subversive pop phenomenon of the 1970s, isn’t a likely candidate for nostalgia.

Still, its Marcus Amphitheater concert Thursday night was the perfect start for a Summerfest that seems bent on representing every decade of the festival’s 40-year history.

Knowing what the crowd came for, the formerly tour-phobic pair of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen clung close to the golden age of 1972 to ’80, only occasionally venturing into their work from this century.

Cynics might think that Fagen and Becker are sleepwalking through their glory days. And perhaps they are looking to cash in their 401(k)s sometime soon.

But during these years, Steely Dan produced some of the most sophisticated and well-crafted pop music of any decade, with hard-edged jazz harmonies and dense, rich textures and beats that can fill up a dance floor even as they drift through the oddest meters and rhythms around.

This was Steely Dan’s last U.S. tour date before heading to Europe, and it showed. Despite the group’s reputation for persnickety studio craft, the music hung loosely around saxophonist Walt Weiskopf’s arrangements. The 12-piece band was full of crack musicians who all got their chance for some quick solo turns. And they really stretched out during an extended version of “Chain Lightning,” with a snaky horn chorus right out of the early Gil Evans catalog.

The sunglassed Fagen looked like a snarling and blind beat poet, turning songs such as “Bad Sneakers” and “Peg” into little prose poems that somehow made sense despite his signature obscure lyrics. Becker was stiff and guru-like onstage, but his supple and playful guitar fills did the speaking for him.

From the vantage of the 21st century, these are songs in which some wise-guy Easterners processed the vacuity of southern California in all its trippyness.

Like Tom Waits, they mostly sing of losers and dealers and misfits. But here, there’s no sentimental and empathetic nod from across the barroom. Just a cool, observant eye with a raised eyebrow and a story to tell.

The four-person Sam Yahel Organ Trio opened the concert with a reworking of classic Blue Note organ jazz of the ’50s.

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