Reeling in the years, the genre-leaping band strikes a winning balance between punch and precision, fire and finesse
By George Varga
Let’s hear it for the band!
In this case that would be the three-woman, eight-man band puts the steel, and the musical punch and precision, in Steely Dan.
On Wednesday night at San Diego’s Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, that band – fondly dubbed the Bipolar Allstars by Steely Dan co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker – re-animated and elevated some of the most sophisticated and technically challenging songs in the modern pop-rock lexicon.
It was a heady display of heavy mettle. And it enabled Becker and Fagen to rise to new heights as they essayed four decades worth of hits and deep album cuts with equal fire and finesse.
The Allstars soared throughout, whether swinging with brassy, big-band jazz verve, getting low down and bluesy, rocking out or laying down percolating funk and R&B grooves that simmered and sizzled. In some instances, they covered all these bases during the course of a single, seamless, genre-leaping (and mixing) song.
More impressive still, the ensemble often bettered the performances of the top studio musicians who performed on Steely Dan’s meticulous, note-perfect albums. They brought alive intricate songs that were originally created solely to be recorded (and which were pieced together from numerous takes), not performed on stage. They also injected a degree of verve and spontaneity that allowed the music to breathe and expand in welcome new ways, but without sacrificing the pinpoint dynamic control and meticulous attention to detail that Becker and Fagen’s songs require.
It’s no surprise, then, that Steely Dan’s two co-leaders singled this talent-packed ensemble out for praise during a recent phone interview with U-T San Diego – albeit with a large dose of the sly humor that has long been the duo’s trademark.
“I do like the opening part of our concerts, where we don’t have to do anything until the band plays,” Fagen said.
“That’s great,” Becker agreed. “And the end, too, is also very good. It never sounds better than when you’re hearing them recede in the distance as you head for your chariot.”
At Wednesday’s sold-out concert, the Allstars opened with a propulsive instrumental romp through the 1959 Art Farmer jazz classic “Blueport” and closed with a brief rendition of the Nelson Riddle-penned theme song to the TV series “The Untouchables,” which debuted in 1959.
In between came 18 Steely Dan gems, beginning with “Your Gold Teeth.” A song from the band’s second album, 1973’s “Countdown to Ecstasy,” the deviously constructed “Teeth” clocked in at eight minutes but didn’t have a single extraneous note or musical gesture.
Neither did “Aja,” “Josie,” the dramatically rearranged “Show Biz Kids,” the seldom played “Razor Boy” (on which Michael Leonhart’s heady trumpet playing replaced the pedal-steel guitar solo on the original recording), or many of the other subsequent selections. This held true even when those songs were stretched and reshaped through fiery instrumental solos and expanded arrangements.
While each band member performed with impressive skill and panache, special mention must go to Keith Carlock, whose drumming was both impeccable and dazzling throughout. Kudos, too, for Steely Dan’s audio engineer, who achieved a near-perfect sound balance despite having to mix four vocalists and 10 instrumentalists.)
The repertoire mixed such fan favorites as “Peg,” “Reeling in the Years,” the rollicking, boogie-woogie fueled “Bodhisattva” and “Kid Charlemagne” with such lesser known treats as “Godwhacker,” “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” and “Black Cow,” which abutted the hard-rocking “Black Friday” (a song that, almost from its first notes, inspired several dozen female concertgoers to stream towards the restrooms).
Only “My Old School,” with its early ’70s, Rolling Stones-styled guitar vamp, sounded dated, although the exuberance with which it was played easily compensated. “Razor Boy,” which also dates back to 1973, was ingeniously revamped. In place of Fagen, the lead vocals were shared by Catherine Russell, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and La Tanya Hall, a move that brought rich new dimension to the song.
Fagen, whose gruff, world-weary singing style made him sound like a prematurely old man in the 1970s, sounded more authentically gruff and weary Wednesday, but in a good way. Becker, meanwhile, continues to grow increasingly assured on guitar, and his tart solos were as satisfying as those by Jon Herington, the band’s more virtuosic six-string master and musical director.
“This is a great place to play – it’s kind of like an outdoor nightclub or something,” Fagen told the sold-out audience of 1,400 (several hundred more watched from the pier and all manner of boats from the adjacent marina). He also quipped that one of Steely Dan’s albums had been recorded “in 1803.”
Buoyed by their superb band, Becker and Fagen are at ease (something they acknowledge was not the case during Steely Dan’s brief touring tenure in the 1970s). Since reactivating the group 20 years ago, after a decade-long hiatus, the two have become more comfortable performing, and it shows.
The pitch-challenged Becker did a rare lead vocal on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” and enthusiastically introduced each band member during a spirited version of the Joe Tex R&B chestnut “I Want To (Do Everything for You).”
Fagen, meanwhile, rose up from his electric piano several times to play melodica, a wind-blown mini keyboard, at center stage. (While the set list did not include Steely Dan’s version of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” the speaker to Fagen’s Fender Rhodes electric piano was draped with a large, vintage black-and-white photo of Ellington and his Orchestra).
“A lot of music hasn’t really got better over the years,” Becker said, during a long, mid-song spoken interlude on “Hey Nineteen.” Happily, Steely Dan’s has, a point that Wednesday’s concert affirmed time and again.