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Live review: Steely Dan at the Gibson Amphitheatre

August 23, 2009 |  2:42 pm

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A few minutes before Steely Dan took the stage to play the entirety of its 1977 album “Aja,” a man wandered the Gibson Amphitheatre dressed as Jesus – wavy, honey-colored hair, a shapeless sackcloth and a benevolent gaze for every sinner who cheered him on.

It was a fitting image for a band that has been both worshiped as melody masters and reviled as purveyors of buttery jazz-rock. The split reputation still dogs the band to this day, among the revivalist hipsters who bitterly argue Steely Dan’s iconoclast status. In the prime time of Kiss and Black Sabbath, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen eschewed the iron fist of rock for their own fleet-fingered vision.

Everyone gathered Friday evening was a believer – and they were treated to something close to rapture at the opening night of Steely Dan’s four-night run in L.A. as part of the group's “Rent Party Tour,” which boasts a special gimmick for the big-city stops: Each show, the band will play a classic album (Saturday was “Gaucho”; Monday is “The Royal Scam”), except for the fourth night, when the group performs requests compiled via Internet ballot from ticket holders. 

With an 11-piece band onstage, Steely Dan had no shortage of help in re-creating the burnished peaks and sauntering jazz of “Aja.” The seven-song suite was conceived, like all of the band's late '70s studio efforts, not to be played live, but they’ve taken on the challenge, a wise choice in this pro-touring chapter of the music business.

In many ways, these stunt shows are a celebration of the session musician. The focus is not so much on the swagger that a lesser player might compensate with, as it is on the precision of a seasoned hand. From the liquid gold tones of backing vocalists Carolyn Leonhart, Catherine Russell and Tawatha Agee to the dicing, splicing drumming of Keith Carlock, each member onstage commanded his or her spotlight,  though more moments of general spontaneity wouldn't have hurt.

At the helm of it all was Fagen, who looked like a member of the Muppets’ Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem with his dark glasses and puppet-like head jerks behind the keyboard or on the prowl with his melodica. Becker was always nearby, trading flashy guitar work with Jon Herington on “Aja” tunes as well as a second set that combed through their '70s catalog, including a deliciously prickly rendering of “Hey Nineteen” and a spring-tight “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City Anymore.”

Neither member of the duo engaged in much talk with the audience, but when the lyrics are as pungent as Steely Dan’s, they shouldn’t be cluttered with needless chatter. “Show Biz Kids” carved a deep, clean hole of funk with caustic lines that might have once been directed at Steely Dan’s sparring partner of 2006, Owen Wilson.

Transplants to L.A. from New York in the early '70s, Becker and Fagen loved to comment on the fame game with Vonnegut-inspired black humor. “Peg” is no different with its "blue" phrase that hints at an actress in the porn industry, but the triumphant horns and Fagen’s clipped and then languid vocals elevated it to the most exuberant decadence.

For the encore, the act sunk its full mettle into “Reelin’ in the Years,” its rhythms and dynamics worked up for drama’s sake. Though Steely Dan has been lambasted for producing music for sipping white-wine spritzers, everyone knows they really like the harder stuff: a smooth, yet spikey, shot of Cuervo Gold or scotch whiskey all night long.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo of Steely Dan performing last month in Switzerland: Jean Christophe-Bott / EPA

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