by Rick Cornell
Tuesday, June 9
Durham Performing Arts Center
You don't go to a Steely Dan concert in search of happy accidents and unscripted moments. No note is out of place, and no spotlight is late to a soloist. The tightly choreographed proceedings unfold with a precision that must inspire envy among Swiss watchmakers. In other words, it's the multi-sensory equivalent of the Steely Dan album's Aja and Guacho, two painstakingly crafted monuments to the quest for musical perfection, the recording studio used as laboratory.
Such was the case with last night’s appropriately Aja- and Gaucho-heavy program last night in Durham. The flawless execution was especially impressive considering that the Durham Performing Arts Center was the first stop on the band’s latest tour and that there were 13 people on stage, not counting the roadie zooming around on a wheeled office chair. A four-piece horn section, three female support singers, a bassist, a guitarist, a keyboardist, a drummer, longtime cohorts Donald Fagen and Walter Becker: Indeed, this was Steely Dan as a big band.
In keeping with the plan, the opening jazz trio, led by organist Sam Yahel, hit its marks, offering ever-so-slightly progressive versions of compositions from Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington alongside “Instant Karma.” It made for perfect ushering-in music. Yahel and crew started promptly at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 8 p.m.—on the damn dot—suggesting that, chops aside, punctuality might be the main reason they got the gig.
So the night’s surprises came not from happenstance but courtesy of diversions from the crowd’s expectations. Reworkings ranged from a slightly slowed down “Black Cow” to a completely face-lifted “Reelin’ in the Years," the verses delivered in real time instead of the lightning-round fashion of the original. The chorus went to the backup singers. “Parker’s Band” was an unexpected choice, as if you were told there’d be just one cut from Pretzel Logic, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” would be the clear favorite. Still, the oddball was a welcome treat. Same for “Here in the Western World," reminding all that “knock twice, rap with your cane” remains one of Fagen’s best pop choruses.
And Fagen was certainly the focal point, whether he was leading the band, commenting on the venue's “hi-fi sound,” prowling with a melodica, or sitting behind the keys, looking like Alan Alda channeling Ray Charles (at least from the middle tier). Becker mostly stayed silent in the shadows. His first words came a third of the way through via a rambling monologue in “Hey Nineteen.” The part existed solely to set up the song’s “Cuervo Gold" bridge. Becker also had band-intro duty, with the ladies getting their soul on in the background. Becker’s one turn on lead vocals, on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City Anymore,” was disappointing. Live, the song flashed even more of an uptown strut than its Katy Lied incarnation. It deserved a voice that was soulful, not merely serviceable.
But it’s hard to complain about a show that featured expert renditions of “Time Out of Mind,” “Josie,” “Babylon Sisters” and other tunes custom-designed for a big band and for big arrangements, not to mention a lively, literally dancing-in-the-aisles take on "Kid Charlemagne." I'm going to complain just a little bit more, though: All that genius occasionally made last night’s performance feel hermetically sealed in a jar of technical proficiency. To that end, an uncharacteristically loose "Peg," as close to raw as it gets in Dan World, cracked the glass and let things breathe.
My favorite moment, though, was “Bad Sneakers,” a hushed band giving Fagen near-sole ownership of the verses and the words: “Five names that I can hardly stand to, including yours and mine and one more chimp who isn't here,” he sang, making almost 35 years melt away in an instant. It was the human connection needed to disrupt the clockwork. And “My Old School,” the latter half of a two-song encore, was the perfect closer. The crowd sang along as the horns swung, everybody awash in the song’s quirky warmth and emotion. Yet again, the unpredictable whirrings of the human heart were far more satisfying than the mechanical workings of a perfect timepiece.