Live Review: Steely Dan in Los Angeles
Steely Dan can, at turns, serve up densely-chorded adult pop standards; barely-controlled, jazzy chaotic experimentations or funk-ribbed workouts. Sunday night's show at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles gave all the Dan faces room to run, and it was a great combo.
This writer's history with Steely Dan traces back to listening to a friend's hand-me-down albums from an older brother in high school. "Countdown To Ecstasy" was the find, and the likes of "Bodhisattva" and "My Old School" formed big chunks of what I thought virtuoso guitar-playing and crisp horn charts were supposed to be for years to come.
A small lifetime later, I spent some time working in a record store, and one of my cohorts once cracked open one of the primo Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs copies of "Aja," cranking it up on the store's high-end system through reference monitors. For years, that was my sonic reference point on everything from drum solos (in the title song) to impeccable engineering.
To my younger ears, there were plenty of shiny objects in the Steely Dan ouvre to fuel months if not years of fascination.
But decades later, what stands above all those shiny things, despite Sunday night's pristine mix and exemplary playing (particularly the nimble fretwork of Jon Herington and the thunderous and precise drum work of Keith Carlock), is the timelessness of the songs themselves, and the volume and quality of the top-shelf stuff.
Steely Dan is on one of their regular summer circuit outings, focusing on their hits, of which there are many, and treating some multi-night stops with a full album in its entirety plus a sprinkling of hits.
Of course, given the jazzy DNA of the band's principles Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, there's very little cookie-cutter replication in their playing. Few of the guitar lines hew to the exact notes of the albums, nor do anyone's solos. Which is not to say that Fagan has gone all Bob Dylan with the melodies. In a sea of envelope-pushing, his vocals and his core keyboard parts form the keystones of each arrangement.
Early in Sunday's set, "Aja" homed in on the elegance of its composition and drew up some interesting guitar lead counterplay with Herington and Becker trading off fleeting runs and pithy, meaty lines.
That interplay surfaced again in "Black Friday," with Becker holding down the lead fills on the first half of the sing and Herington taking over from main lead onward.
"Deacon Blues" showcased the band's four-piece horn section, especially a very strong sax solo. "Bodhisattva" emerged a bit messy, with Carlock's drums too hot in the mix and the whole arrangement feeling a bit like a train about to jump the tracks.
"Rikki Don't Lose That Number" appears to be a tour rarity, and the band nailed it.
In the final stretch, "Josie" was note-perfect, "Peg" was tight, and "My Old School" was the song that finally pulled the full crowd to its feet.
"Reeling In The Years" and "Kid Charlemagne" formed the main set closer and encore, respectively, and managed to dazzle a notoriously finicky L.A. crowd into hanging on til the very last note.