By James Campion
For Huffington Post
Steely Dan — Beacon Theater — 10/4/13
What you expect from the newest Steely Dan show, Mood Swings: 8 Miles High To Pancake Day Tour, the most recent incarnation of the enigmatic jazz-pop duo of Donald Fagan and Walter Becker — the resurgence of which began two decades ago — is solid musicianship, kick-ass sound and ear-bending arrangements of exceedingly infectious songs. What you get from its 9-day residency stint at New York’s Beacon Theater is all that and a surprisingly lively presentation of extended jams, Broadway lighting effects, and a joyous sense that living in the groove is a communal experience.
What was to be the penultimate gig in a monster 53-show tour by the ’70s icon of FM radio staples — the white-blues-smart-short-story blurbs of urban yuppie be-bop — featured an entire reading of the band’s 1977 masterpiece, “Aja”; a record dripping with peripatetic nostalgia, testosterone-addled rage and school-boy infatuation wrapped in spatially structured melody machines.
Fagen, sloppily attired in a gray-black ensemble with a long, barely functioning tie and pink sneakers swayed impishly at his keyboard, black shades and a beaming smile evoking the most affected Ray Charles, was in ragged but tonally severe voice. His biting, yearning, often hilariously poignant lyrics sliced through the dozen musicians and voices backing him. His partner of more or less 45 years, Walter Becker, seemingly dressed for a yoga summit — bearded and bald and tastily gliding his digits across the Fender frets — effortlessly summoned echoes of studio licks subtly brewing from him.
The band, referred to affectionately by Fagen as The Bipolar All-Stars — a finer group of impressively educated and militarily rehearsed cats would be hard to fathom, would be worthy of some kind of vaudevillian hipster showcase. Full horn section; baritone (Roger Rosenberg), and alto sax (Walt Weiskopf), searing trumpet (Michael Leonhart), and trombone (Jim Pugh) added the crucial counter textures which powder the sugar on Steely Dan’s croissant. Chest-caving bass (Freddie Washington), delectable keyboards (Jim Beard), and a dual guitar barrage of riffs and runs from Becker and Jon Herington that mesmerize but never distract. Drummer Keith Carlock, who has been with the line-up for a decade, is as versatile as he is entertaining — a true percussionist in every sense of the word — providing backbone to what almost always appears to be an off-kilter free-form virtuoso soiree.
Let’s face it; sounding “like the record” — to which Steely Dan discs always provide hardcore audiophiles ecstasy — is a pre-requisite to this endeavor, and impeccable vocals completed the experience. This was accomplished with precision by The Borderline Brats; a trio of singers — Catherine Russell, La Tanya Hall and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery. The nuances of their harmonies and hoots-and-woots swirled perfectly within the framework of these fluidly taught rhythms.
After traversing the landscape of “Aja,” “Black Cow,” “Peg,” “Deacon Blues,” “Josie” et al, the band played for another 90 stirring minutes — deep cuts, big hits, and witty repartee through blues, jazz, rock and the obligatory “Reelin’ in The Years,” which induced the crowd into as much a frenzy as a dedicated phalanx of middle-aged to creeping hippy seniors can get. The highlights included a rousing version of “Hey 19” in which Becker rapped for nearly 10 minutes about music, love, life and marijuana, and an unflinchingly dynamic version of the concussive “Bodhisattva.”
There is every indication from this show and its response from the audience that Steely Dan could have set up shop on Broadway for another month.