By Greg Kot
It was a night when East Coast cynicism crashed head-first into Hollywood decadence, ’70s style.
Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were in town, kicking off a four-night residency Monday at the sold-out Chicago Theatre by playing their most popular album, Aja, in its entirety, plus additional songs from their Nixon-era heyday. (The band ignored its studio creations from the current decade, including the Grammy-winning album Two Against Nature.)
Aja was released in 1977 at a time when Fagen and Becker had ceased touring to focus on studio recordings. Master musicians were flown in to play solos, and the tandem developed a reputation for unrivaled precision and finesse. In an era when jazz-fusion albums by the likes of Weather Report and the Headhunters were selling nearly as well as rock releases, the jazz-like leanings of Steely Dan found an audience that bought Aja by the millions.
The ultimate geek-out moment occurs in the middle of the title song, with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Steve Gadd counter-punching like Greek deities.
Though there was no attempt to move the music out of its ‘70s mind set, the tunes endure, a mix of melody and swing, topped with the kind of lyrics that made jaded sport out of a culture steeped in surface pleasures. For Steely Dan, the songs on Aja in particular put the solo on a pedestal, with glorious moments by virtuosos such as guitarist Larry Carlton (who will join the band’s tour later in the week), pianist Victor Feldman and tenor saxophonist Tom Scott. The ultimate geek-out moment occurs in the middle of the title song, with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Steve Gadd counter-punching like Greek deities.
That interlude was relived at the Chicago Theatre by drummer Keith Carlock and saxist Walt Weiskopf with eerie precision and acknowledged with a standing ovation — confirming that Steely Dan’s solos are as well-known as the songs. The question remains, is a solo a solo anymore when it’s essentially replicated? Probably not, but it was still pretty thrilling to watch the interplay, especially when the “improvisation” is like a song in itself. And, above all, it was a tip of the hat to a broader vision, the Fagen-Becker style of composing and arranging –- which, as the years go by, clearly stands as a one-of-a-kind blip in pop history.
The duo’s 11-piece band was a precision instrument, though not everything it played was a note-for-note replication. The live mix somewhat muted Freddie Washington’s excellent bass playing, and nobody tried to reproduce Feldman’s spacious keyboard jabs on “I Got the News.” But the backing singers brought verve and guitarist Jon Herington kept weaving notes together like a master tailor, melody always at the forefront no matter how far out he ventured.
The horn section split the difference between Stax-style strut and be-bop swing. Carlock and Washington kept things percolating; for all the high degree of difficulty in the playing, this was still essentially dance music at its core. The fans were bobbing their heads, and more than a few got up to shimmy during the neon funk of “Josie” and “Hey Nineteen.”
As for the lead duo, they were typically taciturn. Fagen was the eternally cool hipster in his shades behind a keyboard, Becker the avuncular guitar whiz who stepped to the microphone to lay down spoken-word jive. Fagen hissed his vocals, the transplanted New Yorker crawling “like a viper though these suburban streets” of his dearly unloved California, while his backing singers carried the choruses.
So was this better than sitting at home listening on headphones? Yes, especially because it afforded the opportunity to watch Becker and Fagen riff off each other. In the studio, they may have been tacticians orchestrating sonic perfection. And on stage they played it pretty tart and straight too. But they couldn’t mask their satisfaction as Becker’s guitar lines meshed with Fagen’s piano chords on “Josie.” In that moment, they were just a couple of twisted be-boppers, messing around with jazz and turning it into enduring pop.
Steely Dan set list Monday at Chicago Theatre
(first seven songs from “Aja”)
1 Black Cow
3 Deacon Blues
5 Home at Last
6 I Got the News
8 Black Friday
9 Time out of Mind
10 Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More
12 Babylon Sisters
13 Show Biz Kids
14 Hey Nineteen
15 Dirty Work
16 Love is Like an Itching in My Heart (Supremes)/band intros
17 Do It Again
18 Don’t Take Me Alive
19 My Old School
20 Kid Charlemagne
21 Reelin’ in the Years