As I walked out of the Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie late Saturday night, I commented that Steely Dan sure featured some good musicians. "Great musicians, you mean," said my father-in-law. "Those guys were great."
And so they were. Some four decades after Walter Becker and Donald Fagen first decided to form a band named after a dildo, the duo, plus a large entourage of supporting musicians, is still capable of thrilling a packed house of folks looking to go back, jack, and reel in the years.
During the '70s, Becker and Fagen spoke often about disliking live performance. They were master sound manipulators, musical scientists who did their best work locked away in some secret studio. These days, with album releases much more sporadic than back in the day, the pair has honed the live show into a magical two hours of perfection.
Featuring a four man horn section along with a trio of backup singers, a second keyboardist and guitarist plus the required bassist and drummer, Steely Dan sounded like four bands flawlessly messed together. Beginning with a jumping cover of Gerry Mulligan's "Blueport," Fagen led the large ensemble through the Steely Dan back catalogue. Hits ("Reeling in the Years," "Hey Nineteen") were intermingled with solid and well appreciated deep cuts ("Razor Boy," "GodWhacker").
Interestingly, two of the band's biggest hits, "Do it Again" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," were left off the set list. No one in the crowd seemed to care, as each and every song was greeted with thunderous applause. Whether it was the ominous thunder of "Black Friday" or the comforting jazz rock of "Peg" or "Josie," each note was played with such passion and attention to detail that it mattered little what didn't make the list.
At 65, Fagen still sounded marvelous. Sure, he had trouble hitting a few high notes, but the trio of talented backup singers came to his rescue when needed. The full-throated women even took over lead vocals on occasion.
Both Becker and Fagen took turns addressing the crowd, sharing stories of well-stocked mini bars and praising the band as often as possible. Such praise was certainly warranted. The backing band turned what were originally jazzy, soft rock numbers into R&B ravers. Songs such as "Time Out of Mind," "Show Biz Kids" and "Aja" were delivered with a bluesy oomph missing from the studio recordings.
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As the crowd danced and sang along, I couldn't help but notice the interesting demographics of the audience. In front of me sat a kid who couldn't have been ten years old. Next to me was a couple in their 20s. Behind me was another couple in their 40s. This was music that was mostly released between 1972 and 1982. This was music that, however popular, was an anomaly in its day, a reprieve from the doldrums that infected FM radio of that time. As a teenager, I got into Steely Dan because I thought that they were weird. I rejoiced in the fact that my own father and brother thought that Steely Dan's music was strange.
Steely Dan was obscure; you had to dig for meaning like you would a good novel. They introduced me to jazz, sent me digging into stacks of vinyl looking for Coltrane and Mingus. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made me appreciate being different and not being obvious.
Saturday night in Grand Prairie, a wave of warm memories engulfed the crowd as Steely Dan proved itself still relevant some forty years after the fact, proved that thoughtful music and lyrics still had a place.