By David Linton
Attleboro Sun Chronicle
MASHANTUCKET, Conn. – After touring over a half-dozen times since 2000, jazz-rock ambassadors Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have this concert tour thing down pat.
The band leaders of Steely Dan, which helped define the soundtrack of the much musically-maligned 1970s, looked and sounded comfortable on the stage of the Foxwoods MGM Grand Theater Friday night.
Near the start of the two-hour Shuffle Diplomacy Tour show, Becker spoke to the audience over their 1980 hit “Hey Nineteen,” spinning a humorous tale about wayward, middle-aged mischief at a casino.
He did so again near the end over James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” humorously recalling meeting Fagen at Bard College by answering an ad Fagen placed in a newspaper seeking a bass player.
“Hey, what’s a bass but a guitar with less strings?,” Becker told the audience about his decision to answer the ad.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
After begrudgingly touring in the early 1970s as a rock unit at the behest of record company execs, Becker/Fagen have taken to the road eight times since 2000 with crack musicians, horn sections and backup singers with jazzier renditions of their earlier songs.
This year’s unit is called the Miles High Big Band, featuring three female backup singers dubbed the Embassy Brats. They sounded smooth and flawless throughout the 18-song set of the band’s unique blend of jazz, funk and rock.
During Friday night’s show, the band played all of the songs except “I Got The News” from 1977’s groundbreaking album Aja, with drummer Keith Carlock doing a superb job on the skins for the show opener and album title track.
Becker and tour alum, Jon Herington, traded guitar licks and solos on most of the 18-song set list. They played the trademark harmony lines of the 1972 smash hit “Reelin’ in the Years,” which on past tours was retooled with saxophones playing the guitar parts. Herington nailed it.
About midway through the show, the band played a jazzier “Show Biz Kids,” which was almost unrecognizable until Fagen started singing. But the groove and the backing vocals from the Embassy Brats was great.
The brats – Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, Catherine Russell and Cindy Mizelle – also shined on “Dirty Work,” a 1972 chestnut originally sung by David Palmer when he was briefly with the band.
The mostly 40-50ish crowd did not get up from their seats for the most part until the band played the bouncy “My Old School” from 1973, giving the band a rousing standing ovation before kicking into “Reelin’ in the Years” and coming out for encore “Kid Charlemagne” from 1976’s Royal Scam.
The band is scheduled to shuffle back into Boston in September for three shows at the Wang Theater.