NIAGARA FALLS – Steely Dan has its own place in music history, for no other group has so successfully married the sophistication of jazz harmony to the song-oriented strictures of pop, rock, funk and R&B.
From its beginnings in the early 1970s through the present “The Dan Who Knew Too Much Tour,” which stopped by the Seneca Niagara Casino on Friday, the band has consisted of songwriting partners Donald Fagen (vocals/keys) and Walter Becker (guitar/bass/vocals), joined by a host of top-notch session musicians and “ringers-for-hire.”
A sold-out Events Center welcomed the Dan on Friday, and warmed to the band’s uber-hip jazz-soul-funk-rock hybrid as if they’d been waiting all winter for this moment. The band – Fagen and Becker backed by 11 musicians Becker called “the best band we’ve ever had” at several points during the show – rose to the occasion, pulling tunes from throughout the Dan canon, presenting many old favorites in the sparkling new duds granted them by fresh and surprising arrangements, and generally reminding us all of a time when pop music could be both sophisticated and danceable.
The band took the stage minus the bosses first, and tore through a burning arrangement of Donald Byrd and Booker Little’s “November Afternoon,” drummer Keith Carlock offering what would turn out to be a recurring theme of the evening – absolutely smoking drumming, a blend of Buddy Rich and Vinnie Colaiuta that never failed to anchor the groove.
Fagen and Becker waltzed out, looking typically disheveled and mildly bemused, then led the ensemble through a super funky “Black Cow.” The fans were mostly older people, but so what? They got to see the best bands, ya know. They applauded the solos, dug the grooves, seemed to know what was up, and generally left their cellphones in their pockets, where they belonged.
“Aja,” one of the most boldly sophisticated pieces of music ever to be released on a major corporate record label, followed, and the horn section (trumpeter Michael Leonhart, trombonist Jim Pugh, baritone saxophonist Roger Rosenberg and tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskoff) made it plain they’d come to play some hip stuff.
The Dan has a catalog like no other save perhaps the Beatles, one where every tune is pretty much as great as the next. So the set could travel where it wanted to, and it did, pulling from the albums “Aja” and “Countdown to Ecstasy” as eagerly as it indulged in later-period tunes like “Two Against Nature” and an abundantly funky “Godwhacker,” with Fagen emerging from behind his Fender Rhodes for a knotty melodica solo.
Becker entertained the crowd with lengthy free-form asides, like a hilarious uncle who had read all the Beat authors and assumed everyone in attendance had too. He also took the lead vocal on a particularly funky “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More.”
During “Hey Nineteen,” the guitars stole the show, as Becker and Jon Herrington traded lines, both of them blending jazz and bluesy notes in a manner that is frankly unrivaled by any touring band I’ve seen in a good while. A new take on “Showbiz Kids” incorporated a James Brown funk feel – the “Mother Popcorn” groove, to be exact – and again, the interplay between the horns and the guitars was simply sublime. “Bodhisattva” offered Herrington a showcase, and he ran with the opportunity, marrying bebop to country chicken pickin’. (Who does that? Pretty much no one).
Fagen was in particularly good form. His voice was strong and on point, and he seemed to be into it, putting the lie to the portrait often painted of him in the music media as a cantankerous dude.
When the Dan played this same room two years ago, it seemed like they were phoning it in. Not so on Friday. This was a killer set.
Friday night at Seneca Niagara Casino Events Center, Niagara Falls