Steely Dan at Tanglewood

By Greg Haymes
Albany Times Union

LENOX, Mass. – One of the most distinctive bands on the ’70s pop scene, Steely Dan has always had a signature sound – a cool, heady, highly polished, deftly arranged brand of jazz-rock with a smooth-funk edge. And that sound didn’t change even when they came back with 2000′s Two Against Nature, their first studio album in two decades.

So while all of the players – except for co-leaders Walter Becker on guitar and Donald Fagen on vocals and keyboards – have changed many times over the years, Steely Dan’s sound remains intact. Bringing their Shuffle Diplomacy Twenty Eleven tour to Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed on Tuesday evening, Becker and Fagen gave the crowd exactly what they wanted – plenty of classic Steely Dan. Yes, the ’70s were back in full force.

After a half-hour opening set by the Sam Yahel Organ Trio – which most of the crowd appeared to completely ignore – Becker, Fagen, their eight-piece band and a trio of backing singers hit the stage, launching into the title track from their best-selling album, 1977′s Aja, fueled by drummer Keith Carlock. Unfortunately, Fagen’s vocals were overpowered by the band, as they were again for the rockin’ and rollin’ “Black Friday.” Then just a few bars into “Hey Nineteen,” Fagen cut the band off, complaining of a crackle in the sound system. Re-booting the tune, the technical difficulties disappeared, and Fagen was finally audible – a key factor, considering Steely Dan’s ironic humor and cryptic, off-the-wall lyrics.

They touched on all of their albums except Pretzel Logic, with Countdown to Ecstasy in the spotlight for four selections. Most surprisingly, they drew only two songs from their 21st century repertoire – “Janie Runaway” from Two Against Nature and “Godwhacker” from 2003′s Everything Must Go.

Not at all surprising, the musicianship was top notch. Fagen jumped back and forth from his keyboard to the melodica, while Becker traded off lead and rhythm guitar chores with Jon Herington, and also offered a rather pointless, meandering monologue about romance and coming to the Berkshires in the summers when he was a kid.

The bulk of the heavy lifting, musically speaking, was done by the ace band featuring pianist Jim Beard, rock solid bassist Freddie Washington and the horn section of trumpeter Michael Leonhart, trombonist Jim Pugh, saxman Walt Weiskopf and baritone saxophonist Roger Rosenberg. They each got their turn in the spotlight, but they were most powerful as an ensemble. The gals – Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, Cindy Mizelle and Cat Russell – got their moment to shine, too, taking over the lead vocals on the early Steely Dan tune, “Dirty Work.”

There were no real surprises, but that’s probably just how the crowd wanted it, and by the time the band wrapped up the show proper with the one-two blast of “My Old School” and “Reelin’ in the Years” everyone was up on their feet and dancing in the aisles.

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