Steely Dan always used ringers, in the non-pejorative sense.
For co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, it was always about the song – not the singer, the music, not the player, though they always hired the best of the best to interpret the songs they wrote.
Every great band leader, from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to Frank Zappa, found the wisdom in this approach. And Fagen & Becker have been, along with many other things, among the finest band leaders of their time.
On Tuesday, Buffalo got its first taste of Steely Dan in concert minus one half of its brain trust. Becker died in September. Fagen took the decision to carry on the work he and his partner commenced in college at the tail end of the '60s almost immediately.
It was a bittersweet affair, then, for Becker was certainly missed on an emotional level, and on the strictly musical plane, his sinewy, swinging guitar solos, uber-hip chord voicings, funky stabs, avuncular presence and obtuse-but-charming interactions with the crowd leave a void that can't possibly be filled, and probably shouldn’t be.
But did the music suffer for Becker's absence? No, and this fact would surely have delighted Becker, a man who distrusted the spotlight and, it seems, trusted clever chord voicings more than he trusted people.
The Dan has had an incredibly strong touring band for what seems like forever, and guitarist Jon Herrington had no trouble stepping up to fill Becker's (bad) sneakers at Shea's, he being the sort of inventive hybrid of jazz, R&B, funk, rock and soul stylings that fulfill the band mandate. Herrington's playing was particularly stunning during extended solos in "Bodhisattva," "My Old School," and "Reeling in the Years."
Props must be given to drummer Keith Carlock as well, for he is both a powerhouse drummer and a master of subtle and supple groove, as he proved from the opening moments until the final altered 7th chord had done its dirty work.
Fagen himself was in fine form, manning the electric piano and handling lead vocals on a smartly curated selection of hits and deep cuts from the band's all-but-peerless canon. He sang well and seemed decidedly into it, reacting with what seemed to be genuine delight when the first of many standing ovations was offered. "If this is Tuesday night in Buffalo, I'd hate to see what Saturday's like," he quipped.
A touching tribute to Becker came in the form of his tune "Book of Liars" as a montage of photos from Becker's personal photo album flashed across the screen, and the crowd roared its reverent approval.
The crowd sang along with background singers the Dan-ettes on the iconic refrain of "Hey Nineteen," intoning that timeless air of bonhomie honoring "the Cuervo Gold/the fine Colombian" that "make tonight a wonderful thing."
Tuesday night was a wonderful thing indeed. What a way to say goodbye to a man who, through his music, had proven to be a trusted friend.
Tuesday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center