‘Aja’ stuns at the Beacon Theatre

Originally published on Oct. 19, 2016

By Alex Biese
Asbury Park Press

NEW YORK — Over the last several years, artists from Bruce Springsteen to Public Enemy have engaged in the lucrative and crowd-pleasing practice of performing their classic albums in concert, to varying degrees of success.

But if there’s one act that seems ideally suited to this particular format, it’s Steely Dan. After all, the jazz rock combo led by keyboard player/singer Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker is legendary for the meticulous craftsmanship behind each and every one of their recorded notes.

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, Fagen and Becker continued their 10-show residency at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre with a complete performance of the landmark 1977 LP Aja, supplemented by more than a dozen classic Steely Dan numbers to round out the evening.

And while the structure of the show led to a set list that was fairly predictable, the results were still invigorating, even revelatory. From album-opening “Black Cow” soaring with purpose and “Home at Last” digging particularly deeply into its groove, the band seemed dedicated to really bringing this album to life.

Taken as a whole, Aja is remarkable for the way it keenly blends majestic, inventive epics like its title track and the character study “Deacon Blues” with brisk, playful pop numbers “Peg” and “Josie.”

Becker and Fagen were backed in this noble task by 11 supporting musicians, who were repeatedly described by Becker in his mid-song banter as the best version of the Steely Dan band to date. There’s something to that praise, especially as drummer Keith Carlock and guitarist Jon Herington gave extra bite to even the band’s most tried-and-true hits like “Hey Nineteen” and “Reelin’ in the Years.”

It’s appropriate that Steely Dan is having jazz-leaning players open the shows for these Beacon Theatre dates — Tuesday’s show featured the tasteful fusion playing of guitarist Julian Lage and his trio, while other nights of the residency will have songstress Madeleine Peyroux and singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones.

After all, these concerts showcase Steely Dan as being of a piece with the great pre-rock music-makers, unveiling note-perfect renditions of their timeless compositions on stage, night after night for an adoring public ready and willing to enjoy the material we all know so well and hold so dear.

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