Whoever tagged Steely Dan’s music “Yacht Rock” is capsizing his vessel. Sure, yachts can be associated with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. But so can every working-class landlubbing Steely Dan fan with sex organs, money in the pocket and a radio. Furthermore, in Steely Dan’s five-concert residency at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, I’ll bet a boxed-set of their music that there wasn’t a yacht owner in attendance. Yacht rock? Hokum, Horse Poop, Heresy.
Let’s set aside the rant and focus on the heart of the matter. Soldiering on without the recently-deceased Walter Becker, Steely Dan is better than ever. Donald Fagen, the Subterranean Sultan of Soul, the High Priest of Hedonism, the Griot of Gallows Humor, is performing with an uncommon passion, zest and animation I can’t recall. His piano-playing and vocalizing are both stellar.
Mortality has bared its fangs, fueling the determined Fagen to maintain the Dan’s lofty standards with high-octane sets featuring the entire 45-year hit-laden catalogue. (In truth, some of the best songs were not hits.)
Fagen has always been cool - Ray Charles-cool, Bill Withers-cool. But that perspiring man was like Smokin’ Joe Frazier at the piano, a prizefighter without a trainer, rubbing a towel all over his head, face and neck after every song, ready to get back in the ring to throw haymakers.
Positively and uncharacteristically ebullient, he saluted his audiences with “Hey, Kids!” and even a “Daddy-O”, smiling and cracking wise. “This is an urban setting but I hear jungle noises,” he teased one night, eliciting whoops and screeches and all manner of cacophonous hilarity. Whether sarcastic or sincere - it’s hard to judge with Fagen - he even crowed after one song, “I’m so excited I can’t hide it.”
Humorous bawdy banter has always been a staple of a Steely Dan show. Now the band is Fagen’s and his alone and it seems the responsibility of engaging the audience and generating laughs, formerly the province of Becker, is one he is embracing comfortably.
The band was an oriental breeze on Aja, a tornado on Bodhisattva, a bright sunny day at the beach on Reeling In The Years and rolled like thunder on Black Friday. With a couple of notable exceptions, the ensemble has been touring together for a decade and more. They are tight, they are loose, they’re serious, they’re playful: a bluesy, funky, soulful, lilting, rocking, bopping, wah-wahing aggregation of artists having the time of their lives. You can see it, you can hear it, you can feel it.
The beat or the beast, if you will, rumbled from behind him with the untouchable drum demon Keith Carlock and Ready Freddy Washington slapping and thumping his electric bass. Now that’s a formidable rhythm section. To Fagen’s left, way back on high on keyboards is Jim Beard (relatively new), the best pianist you never heard of. Check his resume.
In front of Beard were the black-clad Danettes (Carolyn Leonhart, La Tanya Hall and Catherine Russell), cajoling birds to glide upside down and breaking up bad weather systems with their sweet three-part harmonies and goosebump-inducing solos.
To Fagen’s back right was one of THE premiere horn sections in music. The hale firm of Michael Leonhart, Jim Pugh, Roger Rosenberg and Walt Weiskopf is sassy and classy, huffing and puffing gales of brassy bliss.
In front of them and to Fagen’s right were the twelve strings of Christmas (they never stopped giving), the guitar duo of axe-maestro, musical director and 20-year Steely Dan compadre Jon Harrington and the group’s ‘baby’, wunderkind Connor Kennedy (new and, most impressive, in Becker’s position), who was shredding into Hendrix territory.
The true life tales of Fagen’s months-long quests for perfection in music studios are legendary and harrowing. But the bandleader on stage these days is a loose-limbed grateful artist still at the crest of his powers: “Perfection and grace, a smile on my face,” indeed.
At one point, Fagen acknowledged Becker’s demise: “I’d like to thank my partner, Walter Becker, who couldn’t be here tonight.”
See Steely Dan while you still can.