Steely Dan in KC

By Timothy Finn
Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Thursday night was musician appreciation night at Starlight Theater. Steely Dan was in town, and more than a celebration of the vaunted music catalog of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the two-hour concert before a crowd of more than 6,500 showcased the musical precision and dexterity of the duo and its backing band.

It also showcased Starlight at its sterling best: On a gorgeous late-summer night, the sound was as impeccable as ever.

In several stops along this Shuffle Diplomacy Tour, the band is performing one of three select albums in its entirety. Kansas City was not one of those cities. Instead, we got a setlist comprising a nice mix of several well-known tracks, like “Hey 19,” “Dirty Work,” “Josie,” “Peg” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” and some lesser-known numbers, like “Lunch With Gina” and “Parker’s Band” (well, they were in Kansas City, after all).

They opened with the Duke Ellington number, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” a track from their Pretzel Logic album, then “Your Gold Teeth,” from Countown to Ecstacy.

As the show unfolded, it became clear there were two camps of fans in the place: those who came to hear hits or songs they recognized; and those who were there to sit back, listen and appreciate the band and its swinging, sophisticated sound. Most songs were rendered with some improvisation yet without straying far from their recorded versions. It was a perfect balance.

Yet in the back of the theater, where the sound was pristine but the sense of intimacy was dim, there were signs of ennui, of people mentally checking in and out of the show, especially during the middle third. The mood and the pace picked up noticeably towards the end when the setlist was stacked with go-to songs like “Josie,” “Peg,” the irresistible “Back to My Old School” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” still a classic-rock radio staple, which closed the set.

All night, the band shifted and swayed with ease from rock to funk to swinging jazz to pop, like from “Home at Last” to the cover of James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” to “Dirty Work.” As complex as the music can get, it never lost its melody or surrendered its groove, even during some of the mellower, mid-tempo numbers.

The so-called Miles High Band featured three background vocalist (called the Embassy Brats), a four-piece horn section and a taut but fluid rhythm section (the stellar Keith Carlock on drums and Freddie Washington on bass). All were given a share of the spotlight throughout the set, even the trombonist. Fagen remained in the background, reticent, but Becker took stage front and delivered a couple of monologues, reminiscing about the band’s heydays and the culture it evolved within.

As much as anything, this show was a reminder of those days, when records were made by elite, trained musicians – true “artists” — and we read the liner notes to put names to the impressive sounds we were getting. It was refreshing to soak up that old-school vibe again, to feel humbled by the work of giants.

Setlist: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo; Your Gold Teeth; Aja; Black Friday; Hey 19; Time Out of Mind; Lunch With Gina; Show Biz Kids; Bodhisattva; Pretzel Logic; Godwhacker; Home at Last; Papa Don’t Take No Mess; Dirty Work; Parker’s Band; Josie; Peg; My Old School; Reelin’ in the Years. Encore: Kid Charlemagne; Last Tango in Paris.

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