By Daniel Durchholz
Special to the Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — Steely Dan principals Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are known for their sardonic sense of humor. But even when they’re kidding, there’s an element of truth to what they say. So when Fagen remarked that Monday night’s concert at the Fox Theatre would feature “some tunes from various phases of our magnificent career,” you couldn’t miss the wink in his voice.
But a magnificent career is exactly what it’s been, even though the Dan spent two decades in exile from the recording studio and nearly as long from the road. Since reuniting, the Grammy-winning outfit has played St. Louis, but Monday’s show marked their first indoor performance here since the mid-’70s.
That’s significant because a great band deserves to be heard in a great room, and the Fox provided the perfect setting for Steely Dan’s precisely played mix of rock, jazz, R&B and blues.
The evening began with the Dan’s eight-piece orchestra performing instrumental versions of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” and “The Fez.” Becker and Fagen entered, leading three backup singers to the stage and offering “The Royal Scam.”
From the outset, it was apparent that the show’s focus would remain squarely on the music. An abstract LED display on the back wall and a little stage fog were the only special effects, if you don’t count the jaw-dropping instrumental prowess of the band members, most notably guitarist Jon Herington and drummer Keith Carlock.
Versions of songs such as “Show Biz Kids,” “Bodhisattva” and “Hey Nineteen” matched the instrumental crispness of their studio versions, but expanded a bit to give nearly all the musicians a moment in the spotlight. The two-hour show stuck mostly to a greatest-hits format that included a bluesy “Black Friday,” a rollicking “My Old School” and a dazzling take on “Aja” that unfolded slowly, offering the perfect combination of tension and release. Becker gave Fagen some vocal respite by singing “Gaucho,” while the backup singers performed the rarity “Parker’s Band” and a version of the Supreme’s “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart.”
Many of the show’s 21 songs sounded just as good when they were played under the stars at UMB Bank Pavilion (now Verizon Wireless Amphitheater), and by pretty much the same band, two years ago. But bringing them back inside added a special something on Monday night.
Sam Yahel’s Organ Quartet opened the show, going beyond the traditional groove-laden approach to jazz organ on Yahel’s own composition “Truth and Beauty” and a version of Duke Pearson’s “Chant.”