By Paul Robicheau
These are songs that have forged a life of their own across eras.
In concert as on record, Steely Dan long has occupied the province of studio precision, drawing on session pros to best deliver the group’s smooth, sardonic blend of pop, jazz, and R&B. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that when Walter Becker died of cancer in 2017, his partner-in-crime Donald Fagen would ultimately carry on with their touring band under the Steely Dan name.
It helps that Fagen sang most of the lead vocals in their co-written songs from his piano while Becker played a less prominent role, inserting guitar or bass into the mix alongside their hired hands. And those supportive players also injected considerable personality into Steely Dan’s music, from the vintage albums of the ’70s when the group wouldn’t tour to the past decade-plus when the band wouldn’t record.
At the same time, it’s mainly the songs themselves that have forged a life of their own across the eras. And Steely Dan has been at the forefront of two classic-rock trends in recent years, playing multi-night theater residencies and performing entire classic albums.
So Fagen and his 12 backing musicians and singers (most longtime members of the live Steely Dan) began Friday’s first of five shows across eight nights at the Orpheum Theatre with a complete run through Steely Dan’s most popular album, 1977’s sophisticated earworm Aja. The next night would (in a twist) serve Fagen’s solo album The Nightfly, to be followed by full airings of Gaucho on Tuesday and The Royal Scam on Wednesday before the Dan feast ends the next Friday with a menu solely of hits — beyond a spirited second-half sampling on album nights.
With Becker or without, the touring band’s a seasoned machine – and it helps to have a drummer the caliber of Keith Carlock to channel past players’ iconic parts, particularly on Aja. He echoed Steve Gadd’s steamrolling waves on its title track with lashing emphasis on Friday (even if Walt Weiskopf’s hearty tenor sax solo couldn’t live up to Wayne Shorter’s recorded eruption), then tackled Bernard Purdie’s signature shuffle on “Home at Last” with a heavy hand on the hi-hat. More simply, Carlock also nailed the snappy “Peg” against the edge of Freddie Washington’s thumbed bass pop.
But Friday’s 45-minute first course of Aja was also centered by a rendition of “I Got the News” that lent an entirely different feel, casual yet zippy, with shifting syncopation. It was the night’s first indication that this ensemble wasn’t going to be slave to recorded arrangements. When the set flipped to various hits (largely the same batch each night after album showcases), fresh touches continued in a swinging “Black Friday” and a loose “Time Out of Mind,” where Fagen took a stroll on melodica opposite the punctuating guitar of newcomer Connor Kennedy and talk-box squawk of longtime guitarist and musical director Jon Herington.
A picture of jazz bandleader Duke Ellington graced the front of Fagen’s electric piano and like Ellington, the “originator” of Steely Dan (as Herington called Fagen in a lengthy mid-set band introduction) knows how to share the spotlight across arrangements and solos. On vocals, Fagen’s granular whine still sounded fine at age 71, and he struck an exquisite blend with backup singers Carolyn Leonhart, La Tanya Hall and Catherine Russell, who inserted key lines and refrains throughout the night in addition to trading verses of “Dirty Work” on their own. And four horn players each earned solo turns in addition to meshing in rich harmony.
Herington took the helm early on trademark guitar parts like the break in “Kid Charlemagne,” and when Kennedy (who previously played in Woodstock neighbor Fagen’s Nightflyers) eventually stepped into solos, Herington often seemed to finish them. But that changed when the set peaked with Kennedy’s gnarly notes in “The Boston Rag” (predictably embraced by the hometown crowd) and his slashing coda to a cooking version of “Bodhisattva.”
Fagen wryly gave credit to Becker (“who can’t be here tonight”) after an encore of “Reeling in the Years,” its near-Celtic trills spun by Herington. “The weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned,” sang Fagen, who noted earlier that he spent a short stint at Berklee in 1966. “The things that pass for knowledge I can’t understand.” And fans seemed to comply with that sentiment when they rose to their feet for another sing-along, chiming the line “And I’m never going back to my old school.” Unless of course it’s the old-school sounds of Steely Dan.
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.