By Ramon Ramirez
AUSTIN — Steely Dan is not here to make friends. The ‘70s era soft rock studio wizards infused Bass Concert Hall on Wednesday with a 20-song, two-hour set book-ended by Gerry Mulligan and Nelson Riddle covers, ovation-jumpstarting solos every five minutes and band geek drum breakdowns even during space capsule single, “Reelin’ in the Years.”
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are soulful romantics. The pair wrote seven dense, polished albums in the ‘70s and hired some of the best known session musicians to realize them. They got backup vocals from Michael McDonald and drum solos from Steve Gadd and Bernard Purdie. The band disbanded in 1982, reunited in 1993 and the last 20 years have been an era of Grammys and victory laps.
Sporting a loose-fitting black suit, Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park glasses, and shell top sneakers, Fagen arrived onstage, settled on the keys and went right into “Your Gold Teeth.” He’d spend the evening perched there; sporadically standing to blow into his melodica (a tiny keyboard instrument that sounds like a harmonica). Bearded better half Becker did most of the talking, acknowledging his audience in bursts of free-form, extended banter about the good ol’ days and outfitted in baggy black pants, black shirt, brown boots and hoarding eight, ready-for-action guitars. The duo’s 11 supplemental touring musicians — save for the elegant trio of backup singers — were a united front of poorly dressed veterans in bowler hats, plaid, short-sleeve button downs, tan blazers and pink tees. The unofficially dubbed-by-Becker “Bipolar Orchestra” was comprised of elite expressionists — playing with intense focus, as if for an engineer mixing levels in a studio. Los Angeles- based bassist Freddie Washington pulsed effortlessly. The horn section — Jim Pugh on trombone, Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Walt Weiskopf on tenor sax and Roger Rosenberg on the bari — was the most technical and blazing I’ve ever seen at a rock show. Yet the rampant soloing never grew tedious. Drummer Keith Carlock, behind a cavernous, Monsters of Rock kit, interjected with jazz fills at every turn.
“Tonight is the peak of the summer,” Becker announced just after an oceanliner smooth version of “Hey Nineteen.” The crowd wasn’t familiar with Miley Cyrus, apparently. He extended this round of affirming applause with a shout out to the defunct Armadillo World Headquarters.
Fagen riffed about his extended tenure in rock. “I think it was 1902,” he said of the release date for the band’s second album Countdown to Ecstasy. Steely Dan sequentially performed that record’s first two songs, “Bodhisattva” and “Razor Boy.” Yet Steely Dan wasn’t content to roll out straightforward re-enactments: The rarely performed “Razor Boy” was restructured with lead vocals given to backup singers LaTanya Hall, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Catherine Russell. “We finally found a version we liked,” Fagen said. It was a sonic power move that made you forgive Countdown to Ecstasy for its completely ridiculous album title. “Time Out of Mind’s” straightforward disco rhythms veered into wedding reception territory and sounded flat, uninteresting by comparison — the only track where The Dan seemed to sleepwalk. But hip-hop sample favorites “Black Cow” and “Kid Charlemagne” offered jolts of funk that propelled the audience to stand and clap along with the most earnest musical enthusiasm this side of the Democratic National Convention. It was a baby boomer-heavy audience of cargo shorts, Ben Franklin bifocals and proudly faded black ZZ Top shirts. During the inevitable, end-of-set run through “Reelin’ in the Years” the pretension shackles came off and the room came alive. One cheer-leading couple stood toward the front rows, sang gleefully and snap-danced like Carlton. Steely Dan and their hand-picked musicians have a knack for coaxing such performances from the converted.