Steely Dan at its Very Best

By Jane Stevenson
Toronto Sun

TORONTO — “That was Aja, what do you want to do now?” joked Steely Dan singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen on Wednesday night at Massey Hall.

Fagen and his Steely Dan partner and guitarist Walter Becker had just performed the ’70s New York jazz-rock duo’s most commercially successful album, 1977’s Aja, in its entirety with the help of a big-and-crisp-sounding 11-piece band, and was feeling particularly jovial.

“Sit back, relax, and we’ll take care of the rest,” added Fagen, 61.

Actually, Fagen was in fine, funky and soulful form all night long as he and the more restrained Becker kicked off a two-night stand at Massey Hall featuring their so-called Rent Party ’09 Tour, which sees them performing Aja, The Royal Scam (Thursday night’s featured album), and other discs from start to finish followed by greatest hits.

The result made for one dynamic night of music given Fagen and Becker’s notoriously high standard of musicianship, Aja hits like “Deacon Blues,” “Home At Last,” “Peg,” “I Got The News” and “Josie,” and an impressive back catalog that included “Bodhisattva,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Babylon Sisters,” “Dirty Work,” “My Old School” and “Kid Charlemagne” on Wednesday night.

It helped that their 11-piece band, including a four-man horn section and three female background singers, provided a vibrant backdrop for the duo, who have always been great musicians, if not consistently exciting live performers.

Fagen, in sunglasses, energetically rocked back and forth while on his piano stool a la Ray Charles (even though that was Duke Ellington painted on the front of his keyboards), and even got up and roamed the stage with melodica in hand.

While seated, he often raised one arm in the air to emphasize a note or when a song was coming to its conclusion, he’d get up and stand in front of drummer Keith Carlock with both arms raised over his head and his point his fingers wildly.

His passion was evident.

“What a night!” Fagen exclaimed when he returned for the encore.

On the other hand, the 59-year-old Becker, who gave up lead guitar billing to Jon Herington, also the musical director, on Wednesday night, was content to maintain a pretty static position during his solo turns and took over on lead vocals for, thankfully, only one song during “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More.”

Fans, meanwhile, stayed seated for the most part, although some of the more enthusiastic ones attempted to stand up and dance briefly, even that one women who danced backwards up the aisle while being herded by an usher.

By the end, though, practically everyone was standing up and cheering for the encore barnburner, “Reelin’ In The Years,” with Herington doing justice to the classic song’s signature guitar solo.

Set List

  • Black Cow
  • Aja
  • Deacon Blues
  • Peg
  • Home at Last
  • I Got the News
  • Josie
  • Bodhisattva
  • Hey Nineteen
  • Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More
  • Godwhacker
  • Babylon Sisters
  • Green Earrings
  • Black Friday
  • Dirty Work
  • Love Bug (Supremes cover)
  • Don’t Take Me Alive
  • My Old School
  • Kid Charlemagne
  • (Encore) Reelin’ In The Years

Star rating: (5 out of five stars)

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