Music Review

Steely Dan jazzes up a summer night

Walter Becker (above, earlier this month in New York) and Donald Fagen led Steely Dan in a hit-filled show Monday. Walter Becker (above, earlier this month in New York) and Donald Fagen led Steely Dan in a hit-filled show Monday. (Gary He/associated press/file)
By David Kieley
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2008

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Pity the usher, tiny flashlight in hand, trying to keep a throng of Boston couples from dancing in the aisles during a Steely Dan show.

Bandleaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker brought their legendary jazz-rock outfit to the Bank of America Pavilion on Monday night with a set focused on big hits and deep-cut favorites from their classic albums. Backed by an eight-piece band and two backup singers, the Dan's high-energy operation was light years beyond a nostalgia act, and by the first encore, "Don't Take Me Alive," the crowd was not about to sit down.

Vocalist Fagen, sporting shades and lurching over his keyboard to the lead-foot funk of opener "The Royal Scam," was every inch the wise old hipster, narrating sordid tales of drugs and seedy romance, of life's ups and downs and further-downs with the dry humor he owes to the blues. Guitarist Becker, hanging coolly behind, left barely a song untouched by his storied technique, ambling through an intricate outro to "Josie" and shredding Mel Brown-like blues-funk licks with guitarist Jon Herington on a rocking "Black Friday."

This is a band that knows its fans. During "Hey Nineteen," Fagen's praise for "sweet things from Boston" and Becker's shout-outs to tequila and "Dirty Water" drew raucous cheers, as did a photo of the Celtics championship trophy, splashed across the stage's LCD screen after the first set. The truest moment of Dan-fan bonding came in the climactic finale, "Kid Charlemagne," house lights flaring up as the crowd shouted the beloved, oddball call-response: "Is there gas in the car?/ Yes, there's gas in the caaaaar!"

While at heart a two-man band, Steely Dan relies on talented supporting players on stage as much as in the studio. Backing singers Tawatha Agee and Cindy Mizelle, who have collectively performed with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Bruce Springsteen, did a lot more than sing the "shake it" line from "Babylon Sisters." The pair shone during a lead turn on "Parker's Band," and generally complemented Fagen's distinctively nasal voice, adding a gospel dimension to "Charlemagne" that helped create the frenzy mentioned above.

Frequent solos by the accomplished jazzmen in the brass section - Jim Pugh (trombone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Walt Weiskopf (sax), and Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax) - added a loose, improvisational feel to the proceedings. In the hands of this band, "Two Against Nature" became a much rougher and funkier affair than when it appeared as the title track of the pristine 2000 Steely reunion album.

The only dead spot was Becker's lead vocal on "Gaucho." "That was terrible," a guy behind me laughed. But we joined in the polite applause anyway. One flat note tends to get lost among so many perfect ones.

Jazz organist Sam Yahel was a cool and engaging opener, swapping solos with Weiskopf and Leonhart through a set of loose and lively grooves.