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Steely Dan delivers updated take on classics

The iconic rock band Steely Dan performed in Boston Wednesday night as part of the Shuffle Diplomacy tour. The iconic rock band Steely Dan performed in Boston Wednesday night as part of the Shuffle Diplomacy tour. (Robert E. Klein for The Boston Globe)
By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / September 30, 2011

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You’ve got to wonder if, back when they were making the now-classic albums whose music was on reverential display at the Citi Wang Theatre Wednesday night, Steely Dan would have snickered at all this.

“All this’’ being, of course, the supremely sardonic, archly cool rock band’s Shuffle Diplomacy tour, in which it is showcasing specific albums, eras, and selected hits (Wednesday evening, it was a “Dawn of the Dan’’ set highlighting its first three records).

For a group whose founders (and only permanent members), Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, seemed to barely tolerate (OK, loathe) touring during the band’s 1970s heyday, the Dan has done a lot of it since the pair revived their songwriting partnership and took their act back on the road in the early ’90s.

Then again, headlining elegant ballrooms as enigmatic icons, rather than being booked into auditoriums opening for Bread, is, one would think, more tempting. As was also made abundantly clear during the show - the first of three nights at the Wang, scheduled to resume tonight - being able to bring a coterie of virtuosos along to breathe vibrant life into once-hermetically sealed studio classics like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’’ certainly has its upside.

The eight-piece Miles High Big Band (plus three female vocalists dubbed Embassy Brats), proved a muscular complement to Becker’s and Fagen’s wry odes to compromise and aging (“Reelin’ in the Years’’); spectacular self-destruction (“Do It Again’’); and hollow self-absorption (“Show Biz Kids’’). There was rueful but playful nostalgia (“My Old School’’), and always, the dark humor and snarky spirit lurking under that magnificent - and deceptive - surface sheen.

The hall was half-full, but the devoted were many, and the Dan delivered over the course of a two-hour-plus show, hot off of a seven-night stand in New York. With his dry, acerbic sneer, strained at times, but unmistakably his own instrument, Fagen led the charge through the laconically jazzy “Your Gold Teeth,’’ accented by his cool electric piano, while Becker supplied tasteful, and tasty, electric guitar throughout. He was more than aided and abetted by the sensational work of lead guitarist Jon Herington on showy highlights like a supple, stealthy “Black Friday.’’ True, it was only Wednesday. But workouts like “Kid Charlemagne’’ made it feel like the weekend. And there was, for the record, no snickering (OK, maybe a little). Just well-earned cheers.

Jonathan Perry can be reached at

STEELY DAN At: Citi Wang Theatre, Wednesday night, (repeats tonight and tomorrow)