“Dirty Work” was the Steely Dan song that came to my mind when the band’s Donald Fagen announced that he planned to tour this year, mere months after the death last September of his longtime creative partner, Walter Becker.
As closely intertwined as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards or the two robots from Daft Punk, Fagen and Becker constructed Steely Dan around their unique relationship. A shared sensibility — cynical but unashamed about an attraction to beauty — is what defined the band even as the two songwriters went on to surround themselves with hired hands in the studio.
So the idea of one of them hitting the road without the other, especially amid a well-publicized legal dispute regarding the ownership of Steely Dan’s name, felt like an awfully crass way to exploit their decades of collaborative effort.
Imagine my surprise, then, to find that Steely Dan sounded better Wednesday at the Forum than I’ve heard the group sound in years, including much higher profile gigs at the Coachella festival and on opening night at the Hollywood Bowl.
Part of a summer tour with the Doobie Brothers — not an inspiring choice, it must be said — Wednesday’s performance was precisely the opposite of the lifeless cash-grab I’d feared.
It was funny. It was touching. And, most importantly, it was funky as hell.
“Aja” built from a slinky intro to a bruising climax, while “Hey Nineteen” swung with a kind of poisoned wit. Fagen introduced “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” as a “hit from the Stone Age” but led his 11-piece band at a lively clip that made the tune feel fresh.
Then there were the killer renditions of “Peg” and “Black Cow,” both of which made clear (thanks to the rhythm section of bassist Freddie Washington and drummer Keith Carlock) why Steely Dan’s grooves have been sampled so often by hip-hop producers.
“Sorry my partner couldn’t be here tonight,” Fagen said at one point as he glanced at an unused microphone stand evidently set out in Becker’s memory. (Jon Herington played guitar parts originally recorded by Becker and various soloists.) “And yet we must carry on.”
What was happening here? Why was this show so good?
It’s possible that being in Los Angeles pushed Fagen to exceptional heights. As he told the crowd near the end of Steely Dan’s two-hour set, L.A. is where he and Becker formed the group after moving out from New York in the early 1970s.
“We got a job as staff writers at ABC-Dunhill Records, which has been bought and sold about 4,000 times since then,” the singer recalled. “But what we really wanted was to have a band. We were terrible pop songwriters anyway.”
Thus motivated, “we got a band together, and it all happened right here,” he went on, raising his arms in mock-heroic triumph. “So thank you very much.”
But perhaps Fagen was also looking to prove himself away from Becker — to show that their famously opaque division of labor shouldn’t lead us to assume that the quiet guy with the guitar was Steely Dan’s musical mastermind.
The larger context, too, is likely in Fagen’s mind at a moment when so many rockers of his generation are retiring.
For all the silky textures of songs like “FM” and “Time Out of Mind,” his singing and playing at the Forum had an almost combative edge, as though he were pushing back, at 70 years old, against the notion that the time had come to hang it up.
In that sense, Wednesday’s show reminded me of a recent gig at the Shrine Auditorium by Van Morrison, whose road-dog schedule feels like an implicit rebuke of the grand farewell tours we’re seeing this year by Paul Simon and Elton John, among others.
Like Morrison’s concert, this one suggested that Fagen simply hasn’t tired of playing yet — and so why on Earth should he stop?
Certainly his bandmate’s death complicated the matter. But maybe he was inspired by what he saw last summer at the Classic West festival at Dodger Stadium, where Steely Dan shared the bill with the Eagles a year and a half after that band’s Glenn Frey died.
Did the Eagles’ decision to continue minus Frey strike some as perverse? It struck me that way, at least until I heard how great the Eagles could sound without him.
Now, after seeing Fagen still so energized, I’m thinking the same thing about Steely Dan — which in the end feels just right for a band as committed as this one to upsetting old orthodoxies.