“Nice to be out, isn’t it?” said Steely Dan front man Donald Fagen to a joyful crowd at the Met Wednesday night.
“It’s been too long,” said trumpet master Michael Leonhart. “Nearly two years.”
Indeed it has. On Wednesday, Steely Dan played all of the hallowed masterpiece Aja, following with an irresistible hit-avalanche, to an audience that got louder and crazier as the night went on. The Dan last played Aja in Philly in November 2019. Crowd and band were delighted to be out again.
This prodigious ensemble comes back on Friday night, performing the scarcely less wonderful Royal Scam plus hits, and on Saturday, it’s selections from their new album, Northeast Corridor — Steely Dan Live! Put on your high-heel sneakers, it’s party time.
And it’s a big time for Steely Dan. Northeast Corridor just dropped, along with Nightfly Live, a Fagen solo project. Understandably, the crowd focused on Fagen, surviving member of the Dan songwriting/arranging duo (sidekick Walter Becker passed away in September 2017). But Wednesday shouted it out: This is a big band in the classic spirit.
The powerhouse backbeat almost blew me to the back of the hall. Bassist Freddie Washington’s groove rattled the floorboards, and drummer Keith Carlock, surely one of the best drummers alive, rocked and shocked the house.
Over that foundation, Dan tunes are worlds beyond the recorded numbers. For the tenor sax solo in “Aja,” Walter Weiskopf wrung out brave new things to lusty cheers. Jim Pugh earned applause with an unexpected trombone solo on “Hey Nineteen.” On “Black Cow,” Roger Rosenberg sparkled on bari sax (note to the sound crew: I couldn’t hear the horns much all night) and Jim Beard played beautiful piano.
John Herington (music director, and the longest-tenured Dan guitarist outside of Becker himself) and Connor Kennedy held down the crucial two-guitar orchestral effects. Herington absolutely killed on “Peg,” “Kid Charlemagne” (very funky), and “Josie.” Kennedy traded eights with Fagen-on-melodica in “Time out of Mind,” and he was stingingly masterful on “My Old School” and “Reeling in the Years.”
Oh, those Danettes — La Tanya Hall, Carolyn Leonhart, and Catherine Russell — the three foreground singers, heart and soul of the Dan, who help the aging Fagen voice through the night! They sing like angels, flash on percussion, and dance up a storm. The night’s highlight was their transformation of “Dirty Work.”
Fagen swayed side to side behind his keyboards (someone next to me said he was “swaying like he just got off his yacht”), warming to the crowd. He jokes freely these days: “We don’t have a lot of stagecraft. It’s just what it is. It’s like folk music. You tune up, you play for five or 10 minutes, and then you play something else.”
Yeah, right. Steely Dan’s music is mighty, spectacularly arranged, and fiercely played. Go one, go all.
Hurray for the Pat Bianchi Trio, three astounding musicians who warmed up the crowd with muscle, stamina, and melodic, braiding jazz explorations.
Steely Dan, Friday, Oct. 29, and Saturday, Oct. 30, the Met Philadelphia, 858 N. Broad St., $46.00-$106.00, 800-745-3000, themetphilly.com
John Timpane is a freelance writer and arts reporter for The Inquirer.