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Monday, July 29, 2013

Steely Dan @ The Riverside Theater

July 28, 2013

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Photo credit: Melissa Miller
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Recently there’s been a resurgence of appreciation for a variety of the soft-rock super sounds of the ’70s. In addition to Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan has probably benefitted the most from the trend, perhaps because they’ve always been rather hard to pin down, more complex than most of their peers. You wouldn’t expect a band named after a dildo from William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch to be so eminently radio-friendly, and even if you’ve got a knee-jerk aversion to all things smooth jazz, it’s hard not to appreciate the sophisticated, cinematic blend of funk, rock and laid-back R&B cooked up by Steely Dan’s twin masterminds Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The contradictions don’t stop there; the band spent most of their 1970s heyday strictly as a studio project, foregoing touring in favor of meticulously crafting records, but since reforming in the mid-’90s, it’s been the complete opposite, with Fagen and Becker playing plenty of dates despite not having released anything since 2003’s Everything Must Go. Not that that’s dulled the enthusiasm of their longtime fans.

There was enough excitement here in Milwaukee for what they’ve weirdly dubbed the “Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day Tour” to completely fill the nearly 2,500 seat Riverside Theater, albeit almost exclusively with middle-aged white people reliving their teenaged glory days. But while there was a lot of nostalgia in the air, there was more than enough exciting musical moments coming from Fagen, Becker and company to justify most of it. “And company” is the brief way of referring to the bulging band the duo’s employed to help bring their intricate compositions, originally built in the studio using countless session musicians doing countless takes and dubs, to life, which included a four-person horn section, three backup singers, a drummer, a bassist, a rhythm guitarist and an extra keyboardist. Even with all that personnel, there’s little chance of them matching entirely the layered, organic lushness of the recordings, but that considered, the musicians were well-chosen and did a remarkable job of generating an appropriately room-filling sound without sacrificing its trademark clarity and balance.

Of course the real stars here are the architects themselves, Fagen, who spent most of the time behind his organ but occasionally emerged to entertainingly roam around with a melodica, and Becker, who selected from an armory of guitars to suit each particular tune of a hit heavy set boasting all the FM rock radio staples: “My Old School,” much of Aja including “Deacon Blues” “Josie,” and the title track, as well as a climactic “Reelin’ in the Years.” Their notorious perfectionism mostly paid off, but conversely there wasn’t too much spontaneity; instead it felt almost like they were recreating a studio environment on stage, complete with sheet music and lyrics. There were some unexpected moments, though, like a memorable rendition of the Countdown to Ecstasy deep cut “Razor Boy” and an extended monologue/rant from Becker during “Hey Nineteen,” wherein he outlined in detail how summer nights like tonight were made for getting high (“Toke, toke, toke – BOOM!”), sippin’ Cuervo Gold and checking out the Steely Dan show. It was an odd speech, but in that context rather convincing.