By Jason P. Woodbury
Special for the Republic
PHOENIX — Among the more quixotic artists of the ’70s, songwriters Donald Fagen and Walter Becker blended boho jazz, soul, rock and funk with sneaky, biting lyrics, creating a string of complex, funny epics in the early ’70s. They quit playing shows in 1974, devoting themselves solely to recording immaculate records in a studio setting, all which were received rapturously critically and commercially: Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho. In 1981, popular as ever, they called it quits.
But Steely Dan were reborn in 1993, and since then, Fagen and Becker have seemingly tempered their dissatisfaction with the road, transforming the once-reclusive outfit into a touring machine. It’s been more than a decade since their last studio collaboration, 2003’s Everything Must Go, but in between solo efforts, Fagen and Becker have kept Steely Dan on the road, digging into their extensive back catalog in a live setting. The duo’s Jamalot Ever After Tour came to Comerica Theatre in Phoenix Tuesday, July 15, and over the course of a dynamic two-hour set, they made use of a remarkable 11-piece band, featuring a trio of vocalists, a four-piece horn section, a lead guitarist, keyboardist, and an impeccable rhythm section. Fagen played keys, sang, and manned the melodica; Becker stuck to the guitar (well, a dozen or so guitars), offering up vocals and sly stage banter.
Calling Phoenix “the only city in America that rises from its own ashes – or something like that,” Becker was funny, verbose, and just surly enough to match the black-coffee wit of Steely Dan’s tone. Midway through their 1980 hit, “Hey Nineteen,” he offered an extended rap about pulling out one’s old stash of the “buds of the best chiba-chiba money can buy” and downing a bottle of Cuervo Gold, leading to the song’s boozy refrain.
The crowd hung on every jazzy lick, and the musicians showed off appropriately. Trumpeter Michael Leonhart offered a deft muted solo on “Home At Last.” Guitarist John Herington’s solos were tight and tasteful, and his playing complimented Becker’s as they replicated the knotty textures of “Aja.” The Danettes, a trio of singers featuring Cindy Mizelle (also of the E-Street Band), La Tanya Hall and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, offered highlights throughout the show, but dominated as lead vocalists on “Dirty Work,” which took on a restrained, pensive sound. The rhythm section never got a break — bassist Freddie Washington never seemed to break a sweat while navigating the notoriously difficult bass lines of the Dan’s catalog, and drummer Keith Carlock routinely took solos and seemed perfectly at ease with the twisting time signatures. “This is the best band we ever had,” Becker remarked, and it’s hard to argue anything to the contrary.
Sporting bright red sneakers, Fagen delivered sneering takes on “Time Out of Mind,” “Bodhisattva,” “Babylon Sisters,” and “Green Earrings.” Fagen’s lyrics sting and wound, often seemingly at odds with the very notion of being Steely Dan. “Show Biz Kids,” from their sophomore album Countdown to Ecstasy, rang with sharp barbs. “They got the shapely bods/they got the Steely Dan t-shirt/and for the coup-de-grace/they’re outrageous,” he sang.
Many of their hits were skipped – only half of AZCentral’s essential Steely Dan singles list got stage time – but the crowd didn’t seem fazed. By the time they got around to finishing with the one-two punch of “My Old School” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” the audience seemed to be just getting warmed up. Dutifully, the musicians trotted back out for an encore of “Kid Charlemagne,” but that was it. No “Deacon Blues,” no “Do It Again.”
It’s easy to imagine fans of a lesser band being miffed by the exclusion of radio staples, but Fagen and Becker don’t engender those kinds of fans. They’ve been following their own muse since the start, and they’ve crafted a body of work that is as smooth as it is complex, and as popular as it is trend-averse. Fagen and Becker smiled and waved to the crowd, walking off the stage as the band played Nelson Riddle’s “The Untouchables.” Appropriate – Fagen and Becker remain singular performers, and Steely Dan remain peerless in their class.