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Steely Dan

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on July 27, 2011


I firmly believe in giving Steely Dan the benefit of the doubt. Whether it’s a super-clean snare sound that’s either too-pop-by-half or judiciously slick, or an ambiguous lyric that’s either corny or brilliantly sly, I assert that you can trust the Dan are always in command.

And so it’s entirely appropriate that the band with a Top 40 resume fit to go head-to-head with any of their peers—while outclassing them on the artistic side (cough, the Eagles)—turned in a show at Tanglewood on Tuesday that proved the cleansing antidote to the prefab cheese that rules the roost on the stars-of-yesteryear summer shed circuit.

Fronting a slyly impressive 13-person band (including a four-man brass section and three female backing singers), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker piloted a nearly two-hour show that devoted no less commitment to the ear-candy hits than to deep cuts. And with the latter forming a large chunk of the setlist, the show was decidedly short on lawn pandering. (Sweet baby Becker’s winking reference to “snow on the turnpike” between songs perhaps acknowledged the parallel artistic universe in which some other ’70s era pop icons ply their wares.)

Opening with the leisurely lounge pop of “Aja,” the Dan constructed a show that, while never holding the casual fan at arm’s length, provided lots of airtime designed to satisfy the heavy Danhead, or perhaps even Fagen and Becker themselves. For what appears to be the first time this tour, the band broke out “Janie Runaway,” the great funk-pop gem from their 2000 comeback album Two Against Nature, and totally nailed it. The jazzy, jagged album track “Your Gold Teeth II” was an early-set surprise, and Gaucho’s “Time out of Mind” received a fully luxurious, disco-kissed reading appropriate to the song’s glossy treatment of the all-American pastime of drug abuse.

The leaders found moments to spotlight members of the band, with saxman Walt Weiskopf taking a prominent downstage spot for a rapid-fire solo in the opening number, followed by drummer Keith Carlock’s muscular, rock-flavored interpretation of the legendary Steve Gadd solo from the studio recording of the song. The three backing singers, dubbed the Embassy Brats—Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle, and Catherine Russell—took turns alternating couplets in early-Dan chestnut “Dirty Work,” injecting the languidly amorous mood-setter with a healthy dose of raw sensuality. And guitarist Jon Herington found plenty of highlight moments, ably handling the crucial solo from encore tune “Kid Charlemagne” and exhibiting his eminently clean tone during the pleasing band-intro interlude led by Becker over a James Brown groove.

Becker’s voice on lead guitar was welcome as well, and both he and Fagen seemed particularly enthused during crowd pleasers like “My Old School” and “Josie,” the latter finding Fagen rocking his entire torso forward and backward as he voiced subtle chords on electric piano. “Peg” charged forward with full colors, buoyed by its pace-setting piano figure and the steam of a particularly hot band. “The only reason I went to college was to get in a better band,” Becker dryly remarked at one point. It worked. More than 30 years removed from their commercial prime, and eight years after their last album, Steely Dan continue to sound great—no caveats required.