Since coming back on the scene in 2000, hitmakers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have made it a habit to regularly hit the road each summer tour season, a practice that in their earlier years was looked upon with trepidation.
In fact, after some live gigs to support their first album, Steely Dan stopped touring altogether and weren’t seen in person for 25 years. Now with a typical sense of irony, they’ve extended their Rent Party ’09 tour with an extended leg hitting 17 cities. And in a sagacious move to add some extra panache to their clever marketing ploy, they’ve decided to host several two-night stands in order to feature the albums Aja and The Royal Scam in their entirety.
Last night's opening set in Akron was a well-attended affair that got underway with Chicago’s Deep Blue Organ Trio as an aperitif. Fagen and Becker are jazzheads, so this was no surprise. Organist Chris Foreman, guitarist Bobby Broom and drummer Chris Rockingham wasted no time getting to the point with tasty solos and blues-inflected grooves. A shuffle beat affixed to Earth, Wind & Fire's “Can’t Hide Love” was a highlight of their three-song set.
Carrying the subliminal jazz message even further, set changes would reveal a fine piece of artwork attached to the front of Fagen’s Fender Rhodes, which depicted a youthful Duke Ellington leading a band from his piano. For the coup de grace, as Steely Dan would put it, a run-through of Oliver Nelson’s “Teenie’s Blues” featuring only the horns and rhythm section would serve as the group’s opening gambit.
Once Fagen and Becker took the stage, singer Catherine Russell stepped up to a turntable on the side of the stage and placed the needle in the groove, complete with sound effects. From there, the opening strains of “Black Cow” ushered in an authentic but equally fresh run through of Aja.
The highlight of the album's first side is the title track, and this was true last night. Tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf stepped into the solo shoes originally filled by Wayne Shorter and did more than his share to put his stamp on the number. The same could be said for Keith Carlock, who upped the ante in the drum department, taking over a part that is considered one of studio legend Steve Gadd’s finest recorded moments.
As “Deacon Blues” wrapped up, Russell would step up to the turntable once again to the flip the record over for the other half of the program. Both “Home at Last” and “Josie” would sport fine guitar solos from Walter Becker, who seemed particularly more animated and outgoing musically than he has been in the past.
Rounding out the evening was an entertaining cross section of the rest of the band’s history. Again, Becker would take on a more active role in the proceedings, actually delivering a few lines during “Hey Nineteen” and doing the lead vocals on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More.”
A welcomed number of more recent vintage, “Godwhacker” mixed in nicely with such iconic trinkets as “Babylon Sisters,” “Don’t Take Me Alive” and “My Old School.” There was also plenty of room for solos from guitarist Jon Herington, saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and trumpeter Michael Leonhart.
At just a wee bit past the two-hour mark, a rousing chorus of applause brought the band back for an encore. With “Reelin’ in the Years,” the band played their irony card once again. Even Becker marveled at the fact that he and Fagen had been at it for 40 years, and yet the music is as vital and important now as a it ever was. Some reelin’ indeed. —C. Andrew Hovan