Steely Dan is not a man — it’s a band, one of the best in the land.
That was the message, powerful and persuasive, on Wednesday night, as the Dan began a three-gigs-in-four-days residency at the Met Philadelphia.
Wednesday, before a packed house, they did the masterpiece album Aja plus other “random” (in cofounder Donald Fagen’s words) hits. After a break Thursday, they’ll do Gaucho plus hits on Friday night (some tickets left), and on Saturday (sold out), it’s all hits. If you can find a ticket, buy that thrill and go.
Go, first, to hear the music, still beautiful, various, and fresh. Hearing Aja track by exquisite track was a countdown to ecstasy. And sorrow. And sex. And party time. My companion kept saying, “Song after song after song! It’s unbelievable!”
Go, too, to behold a dozen masters plus Fagen, moving magisterially through a playlist as good as you can get.
Fagen is, of course, a focal point, squirming behind his keyboard, shuffling across the stage with his beloved melodica, and giving us some funny talk (Steely Dan talks to the audience more than it used to) — but the spotlight moves around.
Go, finally, to see what a cohesive, mighty unit this band has become.
Steely Dan has gotten a bum deal from radio. Many of the best-known tunes, the ones you hear everywhere, are top-40 ’70s hits, deservedly famous, but perhaps responsible for the idea that this is a middle-of-the-road bunch of old folks playing yacht rock.
Be disabused. Played live, these songs are a very different thing. This is a muscular, sensitive group of musical explorers who can bring it, everything from funk (“Kid Charlemagne”) to jazz to blues to rock (“Reeling in the Years”).
Aja’s opening track, “Black Cow,” had Roger Rosenberg stepping forward with, of all things, a baritone sax solo. We had barely recovered when “Aja” itself began, a worldly musical journey featuring Walt Weiskopf on tenor sax, earning applause with relentless, fabulous work. In the same tune came the night’s high point, an obliterating solo by drummer Keith Carlock.
Singer La Tanya Hall of the smashing Danettes introduced Carlock as “the greatest drummer of all time,” and that’s little exaggeration. This groove master is Steely Dan’s power train and identity. On a raised, floodlit platform, he unleashed machine-gun fills, jaw-breaking snare shots, and thunderous rolls. Yacht rock? I don’t think so.
John Herington, lead Dan guitarist and musical director for this entire millennium, can play anything. He did some of deceased cofounder Walter Becker’s solos nearly note-for-note (“Josie”) in tender homage. (Fagen paused to “thank my partner, Walter Becker, who could not be here tonight.”) Fellow guitarist Connor Kennedy (Fagen called him “the new kid”), after some sound problems, exploded right at the end in “Bodhisattva” and “My Old School,” with the audience singing along, which they did a lot.
Pause here to love the Danettes some. Hall, Carolyn Leonhart, and Catherine Russell are not just backup vocalists. They are the soul of the band, and they have lots to do. For one thing, they prop up Fagen, whose voice, though he had his moments (“Home at Last”), is not what it used to be. Their parts are complex and vital, they play great percussion, and their dancing accents some of the filthier lyrics.
Fagen hands radio favorite “Dirty Work” over to them, and they make it a sexy treasure.
The Pat Bianchi Trio opened, and they were very poorly served. The fine organist and his mates played with goodness, but the sound system failed them (how can this be allowed at a major venue like the Met?), as did a loud, inattentive crowd. Still, Philadelphian drummer Byron Landham and tireless guitarist Paul Bollenback got the crowd on their side.