Pop Veterans Still Pumping Anti-Charisma

By Ben Ratliff
New York Times

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker seem like the kind of late-1960s hypercerebral born-cynical East Coast hipsters who are often found valorizing authenticity in aesthetic expression. You know: collectors of pre-war blues 78s, memorizers of outdated jazz argot.

But instead of turning away from pop gloss, they acted like good professionals and ran toward it. In the 1970s they made disco-jazz-rock records, and they weren’t bitter spoofs. Their intentions and lyrics were opaque and somewhat intellectual. And some of their songs were extremely good, the radio hits being among the best.

For pop stars in decent health, a little opacity is a pension plan. At 60 and 58, Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker, leading a new version of Steely Dan, are playing a five-night run at the Beacon Theater. Their opacity might be why so many people seemed to feel happily nostalgic for music that makes fun of nostalgia and why so many middle-aged women were at the Beacon on Friday night, enjoying songs that can get kind of creepy toward their female characters.

Well, that and craft, both in composition and in performance. You could get a brain ache from the archness overload, but there was lots to respect. Obviously there’s the complexity of the harmony: though the band will ground songs in rhythmic patterns lift from Motown, disco, blues and funk, it’s not afraid to load up those songs with jazz chords, or as in “Parker’s Band,” quotations from actual jazz songs. It’s the horn section where the band’s jazz tendencies run hardest, and each of its current members — the alto and tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, the trombonist Jim Pugh, the trumpeter Michael Leonhart and the baritone saxophonist Roger Rosenberg — had ample opportunity on Friday to establish his own individual sound.

And then there’s the band’s two weird principals, Mr. Fagen and Mr. Becker, pumping out the anti-charisma: the unlikeliness of them as bandleaders or rock stars, the mystery of how they divide labor, their comfort with yielding power to others. The stooped Mr. Fagen, rearing his head back behind sunglasses when he sang, also played electric piano all night, but in the thick sound of the 10-piece, four-horn band, his work was audible mostly as rhythmic accents. Mr. Becker played electric guitar with great discipline yet gave most of the best-known guitar leads to Jon Herington. Neither bandleader is a showman. The longest onstage comment came from Mr. Becker, as a prelude to “Hey Nineteen”: an unfunny story about teenage sex and drinking told from a post-rehab point of view. Total downer, morbidly fascinating.

This is the third Steely Dan tour in three years, and in this the band is starting to flirt with predictability. But it’s also in the winning position of being an album-oriented band with a deep catalog to shine up and voluminous lyrics that are no more obvious as the years pass. There was a difference in the decibel level of the crowd roar when the band started up a hit — “Hey Nineteen,” “Peg,” “Black Friday” — as opposed to a nonhit, like “Show Biz Kids” or “Babylon Sisters.” But it was a slight one.

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