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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

Steely Dan @ The Riverside Theater

Aug. 28, 2011

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Steely Dan hasn't had a new record since 2003, but that didn't matter a bit to the energized crowd at the Riverside Theater Sunday night. They were there to hear "the hits," and they weren't disappointed. The instantly recognizable songs (as well as some lesser-known ones) showed off the duo's quirky blend of rock, pop, funk, blues and R&B—a combination that makes their music so distinct, so smooth and so lasting.

It's been almost 40 years since singer-songwriter Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker created a sound that intertwined jazz stylings within rock and pop structures underscored by smoothly blended harmonies and shifting song structures. It remains as timeless as ever.

The duo has always relied on a stellar team of revolving studio musicians and backup singers to replicate their aural vision, and Sunday's show demonstrated their dedication to that perfectionism. A four-piece horn section with drums, guitar and bass made up the Miles High Big Band, along with the cool female backing vocals of a trio nicknamed The Embassy Brats. For Steely Dan fans, the ensuing two hours and 40 minutes was a wonderful experience, with strange, eccentric images of unique characters that populate obscure worlds of meaning juxtaposed against a few real-life journeys.

Steely Dan had performed the 1977 album Aja in its entirety the night before; Sunday's "greatest hits" package showcased a number of songs from their nine studio albums. Aja was still well represented with a cool, languid version of the title track as well as "Home at Last," the upbeat "Peg" and the funked-up "Josie," featuring guitarist Becker's familiar Far East-inspired guitar strains bookending the familiar tune.

Becker took center stage with an effortless guitar solo on tunes from the 1980 follow-up Gaucho, which also saw gorgeous renderings of the lush "Time Out of Mind" and "Babylon Sisters."

But Steely Dan has always been about the unlikely vocal ease of Fagen, who makes every note sound perfectly in place. While his vocals sounded stretched at times, particularly toward show's end, it all worked out with the sultry harmonies of the backing trio.

Fagen teased the audience with an extended keyboard intro on a laid-back, jazzy version of the group's first hit, "Do It Again," but it was the rollicking hits that got the crowd back on its feet, including a high-energy "Reelin' in the Years" and the surprising choice of an encore, "Kid Charlemagne."

"This is a magical night," guitarist Becker emphatically told the crowd early on in the show. He was right, and the crowd already knew that. All it takes is a bit of musical magic to be transported to a world that is uniquely created and inhabited by (as Becker so eloquently stated), "The mighty Steely Dan."


Photo by Erik Ljung