Review: Steely Dan’s complexity comes alive in concert

by MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

If you’re a fan of Steely Dan, you know how complex the group’s arrangements can be.

Donald Fagen’s and Walter Becker’s affinity for jazz – and the many genres that feed that musical stream –were clearly evident throughout the course of their recorded career.

But, unlike true jazz, Steely Dan’s recordings often lacked one key ingredient. The creative freedom of musical exploration known as improvisation.

On its albums such as “Gaucho” and “Aja,” Steely Dan showed it understood the components of jazz. The music had the chords, the melodies, and the instrumentation utilized by jazz groups. But Steely Dan, i.e. Becker and Fagen, was notorious for being very particular about the recordings. The right notes had to be in the right place. There was a constant striving for perfection on Steely Dan’s recordings, which ran counter to the sometimes messy results of jazz at its most creative.

However, these days, Steely Dan is primarily a touring incarnation. The group hasn’t entered the studio in more than a decade.

Unburdened and released from the recording studio, you now have the opportunity to gain a truer picture of the group’s genius.

At the Mohegan Sun Arena on Nov. 2, the many musical components of Steely Dan’s compositions – sometimes working together and sometimes working against each other—showed a band that was more than a visitor on the top 40 or classic rock station. The group was all about straying convincingly away from four on the floor beats and three power chords per song

And, more importantly, as a permanent live entity, there was plenty of musical leash provided to the 13-man group to play around musically within the songs in Steely Dan’s catalogue.

Steely Dan, these days, of course, has evolved in its decades of existence. After initially arriving as a self-sufficient unit, the group was reduced to Becker and Fagen by the late 1970s.

Further evolution was forced on the group when Becker, who played bass and wrote most of the group’s cryptic lyrics, died in 2017 of cancer.

Fagen, who had a relatively successful solo career outside of Steely Dan, now carries on the name with a new group of musicians backing him.

The group, however, although lacking Becker, still includes a line-up of consummate musicians. They easily maneuvered through the dense arrangements, crafted by the group’s guitarist—and long-time Fagen collaborator– Jon Herington.

If there were any complaints on the evening it was Fagen’s vocals. Some of the issues weren’t entirely his own fault. He said he was fighting a cold. And a portion of the evening found the mix on Fagen’s microphone softer than his backup singers. (Once that was resolved, life was smoother for the group’s leader).

However, Fagen never had a huge range and time has diminished it. But he still has the rhythmic bite he built around Becker’s beat poet inspired lyrics.

There were so many of my favorite tracks included in the set list. Deeper tracks like “My Old School” and “Bodhisattva” and “Black Cow” were particularly exciting to hear. The hits, like “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Josie” were also a blast to hear in a live setting.

But there also was a bit of a disappointment that Steely Dan’s set list is stuck in the 1970s. And Fagen gave no indication that there might be new music from Steely Dan despite the loss of Becker. Although fans clearly want the old stuff, it would be nice to know that the creative juices were still flowing for the band.

For longtime fans of Steely Dan, however, the live show was proof of the unique niche the group placed itself- settling comfortable somewhere in the genres of pop, classic rock, R&B, and jazz. If you haven’t heard the music of Steely Dan performed live, you don’t know what you’re missing.

I give Steely Dan at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Nov. 2 four out of five stars.

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