Steely Dan WinStar Casino, Thackerville, Oklahoma Friday, July 18, 2014
At Winstar Casino in Oklahoma last Friday night, Steely Dan marched in with a sophisticated army of 13 musicians armed to mellow you out. The band's music always has a peculiarly lukewarm character, not quite uptempo enough to rock out to, nor emotive enough to be transporting. While other bands of their time were experimenting with psychedelic sounds and drugs, it would appear that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker preferred sitting around the studio passing around a joint. The result evokes the smooth and sentimental sound of an '80s romance movie -- which, sonically speaking, is exactly what the first half of the show resembled.
Guitarist Becker's face and body language remained emotionless, whether he sang or rambled on about drinks and the metaphorical tent he said we all live in. He maneuvered his guitar studiously in a manner so spartan that he might as well have been gardening or doing anything other than finding himself at a live show in front of thousands of people. The greater guitar moments were delegated to guest player John Harrington and every ounce of expected stage presence was assigned to Fagen, who sang with elegance and swayed on the keyboard passionately like Ray Charles.
Much of the show was carried by the three back-up singers who were as poised as the Supremes, and sang entire songs like "Dirty Work", emanating one of the only sources of energy coming from the stage.
Each musician took a turn soloing front and center and it would have been difficult to keep your eyes and ears from trying to look everywhere at once otherwise, given the number of performers onstage. The nucleus of the whole ensemble was drummer Keith Carlisle. Even in slow motion he would've resembled a Hindu goddess, possessing several pairs of freakishly rapid arms that seemed to multiply. Three quarters through the show, he got an impressive crowd ovation, as did Fagen, but there was barely a murmur of applause for Becker when he was introduced.
The casino's performance hall was filled to the brim with the most mature audience in all of history, not only in age, but in its impeccable social etiquette; there was no whooping nor random shouting, and rarely were any cell phones used. There was also no dancing for most of the show, understandable given that the venue's seating is level, which puts the audience in an awkward position. Either everybody stands or nobody stands, and this was a Victorian-mannered crowd.
The show was lacking in all customary invitations for audience participation -- no waving, clapping or singing along. Steely Dan clearly left all those antics at the door and let their instruments speak for themselves. Never did the performers enter each other's immediate space, nor did they show much chemistry with one another. The climate onstage was cold, professional and respectful, like a polished orchestra, or rather, former marching band students who had accidentally started a band with a cult-following, and presently aimed to convey the seriousness of their playing.
After a friendly duel between Becker's guitar and Fagen's melodica, the atmosphere reached slight ascendance with songs like "Peg" and " Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More." By the time the end neared with the iconic "Reeling in the Years" the party was just getting started, and the audience finally lost its collective decorum and danced.
Conspicuously absent was the band's other greatest hit, "Do it Again", which would've made a great encore, and a few people complained about this decision while walking out, noting that the gambling theme would've worked well with the setting. All the same, even if the party took off late, judging by the constant head-bobbing it looked like the majority had a discreet and safely-seated good time.