In the sunshine of the ‘70s, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were a voice of doom, prophesying from the heart of subversively seductive, sophisticated pop hits.
In the turbulence of the ‘90s, they’re a couple of pussycats.
Well, not entirely--the two brand-new songs they played Tuesday at the Greek Theatre were intensely bitter concoctions. But in persona and attitude, the reversal was radical.
The two, dubbed the Manson and Starkweather of rock ‘n’ roll by one early colleague and reluctant if not antagonistic showmen in the early ‘70s, were generous, open-hearted, straightforward, playful after a fashion, and from all indications sincerely touched by the audience’s response, especially when they built to a peak toward the end of the set.
In the spirit of their jazzman role models, they were alive to the moment and fed off that energy, bringing the show to a boil with a set-closing series of solo exchanges among Becker and two other guitarists on Fagen’s “Teahouse on the Tracks,” the second song of the show to use the jazz life as a symbol of liberation.
They then took it higher with an encore of “My Old School.” One of the show’s few early-period nods to sentiment, it generated a communal, sing-along atmosphere that might have been inconceivable in Steely Dan’s first incarnation.
Of course it helps when you can take 19 years off to renew yourself. Steely Dan hasn’t performed in that span, nor released a record since 1980, so fans have greeted this unexpected U.S. tour the way the faithful might be compelled to a miraculous apparition.
The Southern California shows (after a second night at the Greek, the tour moves on Friday to Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and Saturday to the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion) might take on an added edge from the songs’ return to their place of origin. In his closing remarks, Fagen recalled the ABC Records basement on Beverly Boulevard where Steely Dan hatched its 1972 hit debut, and the group’s original guitarist, Denny Diaz, sat in on several songs Tuesday.
The playing, by what Fagen introduced as the “all new and fresh for ’93 Steely Dan Orchestra,” was fine as expected, ranging from the scale and charge of a big band to an intimate, jazz-combo style to the individualistic, rock-informed blends.
Indulging their jazz groundings, Becker (on guitar) and Fagen (keyboards) gave full rein to their players in long solo spots. With a three-saxophone horn section and three women singing backup, they could capture the full sumptuousness that marks their later material, and with Weather Report’s Peter Erskine on drums, the group swung unfailingly.
Given their legendary perfectionism, that kind of impeccable execution was predictable. The real question about the nature of these shows was which songs they’d select from their diverse catalogue. Given their legendary perversity, it’s not surprising that they avoided their biggest hits, but there were few eye-opening surprises in compensation.
Some of the songs seemed less than essential, and the set was weighted toward their later material, giving a somewhat narrow view of their music. They might justify it by pointing out that these are the songs they never got to play the first time around. Still, the balance was slightly off.
The most obscure entry might have been “Third World Man,” even slower and more haunting than on the “Gaucho” album. “Babylon Sisters” is aging as well as any of their songs, and its dynamic contrasts, the female chorus and Fagen’s aching delivery palpably raised the evening’s emotional stakes.
Tempering the nostalgic slant, they included two tunes from Fagen’s current solo album, “Kamakiriad,” which fit snugly in the Steely Dan context, and two from Becker’s in-progress album, which fit God knows where: the edgy, slightly queasy “Book of Liars” and the scathing “The Fall of ’92,” an enraged account of “romance without finance” in the post-Republican wilderness.
But the centerpiece might have been “Deacon Blues,” only a medium-level hit in ’78 but now something of a manifesto, an enduring affirmation of commitment to one’s dreams. Its opening line was never more fitting: This was truly the night of the expanding men.