Compared to their live shows, most classic rock bands may sound a bit constrained on their studio albums, but the brainy boys behind Steely Dan have always had the opposite challenge.
Vocalist/keyboardist Donald Fagen and compadre guitarist Walter Becker, along with a rotating cast of backing musicians, produced meticulous, nuanced, and layered records like Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, and Aja during the '70s while specifically avoiding live gigs. Then, ironically, the last quarter-century has seen the Dan produce more tours than records.
Still, Steely Dan’s Houston stop on its “Think Fast” summer tour was mostly a sparkling and crisp – but definitely not sterile – journey through its entire catalogue. Looking like a Muppet with his sideways-cocked head behind shades and his keyboard, Fagen’s voice has changed little over the years. He imbued a trademark sardonic edge to standouts like “I Got the News” and raucous takes on “My Old School” and a surprisingly fresh “Bodhisattva.”
Of the more recent material, “Godwhacker” (from 2003’s Everything Must Go) fell into a solid, solid groove, with Fagen jumping out from behind the bench to play a spry hand-held melodica, a sort of cross between a harmonica and keyboard accordion.
As for Becker, he whipped out tasty solos on “I Got the News” and “Hey Nineteen,” but as usual left most of the six-string heavy lifting work to others, in this case the amazing Jon Herington. Of the 11-member backup band, trumpeter Michael Leonhart, sax player Walt Weiskopf and incomparable drummer Keith Carlock also stood out.
Then there was the female backing trio of Tawatha Agee, Cindy Mizelle and Catherine Russell. Dressed identically in tight jeans, sexy black tank tops, and Afros, they added punch to a lot of numbers, especially the warning about “going to Lost Wages” on “Show Biz Kids.”
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, of course, has the distinction of being not only Steely Dan’s most commercially successful record, but probably the album that fared best with critics as well, so it was hardly surprising the set list included more numbers from here than anything else. However, while “I Got the News” and a sizzling “Black Cow” were high points, the band’s take on the more familiar numbers “Peg,” “Josie” and the title track seemed a bit, well…wanting. Sure, those songs received some of the best audience response strictly out of familiarity, but they never even came close to their CD counterparts. Even Fagen seemed like he was singing out of rote repetition.
Though the set stuck mostly to Dan material, Fagen did break out a smooth version of his solo hit “New Frontier.” Unfortunately, it was followed by the woefully tone-deaf and flat-singing Becker taking a turn at lead vocals on “Gaucho.” Why this man is let anywhere near a microphone is a mystery, possibly a curse upon the audience concocted by a drunken Doctor Wu at some point many moons ago.
But a sprinkling of stumbles certainly didn’t deter from the overall amazing show, a triumph of musicianship and material for a band who, while still hugely popular, is often overlooked among its harder-rocking classic-rock contemporaries.
The sold-out audience was comprised mainly of casually-dressed folks in their 40’s and 50’s - leading one to surmise that there will be a lot of offices in Houston with middle management employees coming in late today. But the crowd was appreciative and attentive, if not overly demonstrative or interested in standing up even during the hits.
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One person I was behind in the beer line was an Austin superfan who sported a shirt from the band’s Everything Must Go tour and was also attending Thursday’s show in Dallas. He could only shake his head as his friend was more attentive to Verizon’s sales booth.
“Look at him!” he nudged me. “Fucking negotiating a cell phone deal at a Steely Dan show!” Maybe he at least bought a ringtone of “Reelin’ in the Years." - Bob Ruggiero
Instrumental Overture (including snatches of “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” and “The Fez”) “The Royal Scam” “I Got the News” “Show Biz Kids” “Bodhisattva" “Two Against Nature” “Hey Nineteen” “Godwhacker” “Black Cow” “New Frontier” “Gaucho” “Black Friday” “Parker’s Band” “Josie” “Aja” “Peg” “My Old School” “Pretzel Logic” “Kid Charlemagne”