Steely Dan Sticks to Formula at the Forum: Concert Review
Veteran band’s return to roadwork is now two decades old, resulting in another winning, if predictable, performance.
Back in summer 1993, when once-reclusive jazz-rock outfit Steely Dan returned after more than a decade in the quiet wilderness, lifelong fans came away thrilled not just by dexterous playing and unearthed gems but, more so, the mere sight of the group on any stage. This was, after all, the same enigmatic act that had sworn off the road nearly 20 years earlier, following a Fourth of July ’74 show at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. They preferred the pristine perfection of studio seclusion over what was then a less-than-fulfilling life on the road.
As robust as those initial reunion sets were, audiences who turned out to witness the unthinkable back then never could have guessed that 21 years later the Dan would still be at it. Arguably stronger than ever, yet peddling little more than nostalgia with superior chops, the ensemble did so again during a predictable, but winning, turn Saturday night at the revitalized Forum, a landmark that the N.Y.C.-born, L.A.-bred group had never headlined before.
Certainly the band — professorial masterminds Donald Fagen and Walter Becker plus a revolving arsenal of aces — has been cashing in ever since their Burroughs-derived moniker was revived. Not that their paydays have lacked integrity: That first tour, for instance, was not only an attention-grabbing means of promoting Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad, but a chance for Steely Dan to prove it could deliver knockout performances, finally turning so many meticulous ’70s tracks into the malleable concert material they always were.
Now, however, 11 years since the duo’s last collaboration (the underrated Everything Must Go) and a couple more since their sterling comeback Two Against Nature denied Eminem an album of the year Grammy, Fagen and Becker have become the exact opposite of what they were at the height of their multiplatinum heyday in ’77: road warriors. Exceptional musicians though they remain, they are now intrinsically (if not aesthetically) the same as any other throwback headed to the Forum this year, from Aerosmith and Boston to Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac.
Jamalot Ever After, their latest and least cryptic of tour titles, isn’t scarcely different from last year’s outing, Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day, nor any other curiously named jaunt before that one, like 2011’s Shuffle Diplomacy or the Rent Party run of 2009. Yet that familiarity, while strengthening a core, largely unchanged set list, has also caused daring to dissipate along with an earlier proclivity for vault-raiding.
It used to be that you could check out a Steely Dan gig and anticipate finding a few neglected cuts —oddballs like “The Fez” or “Doctor Wu” or less-characteristic tunes like “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” — slotted among must-play crowd-pleasers like “My Old School” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” That expectation got tossed aside with the notion of doing classic albums in full, although most nights significant parts of multiplatinum princess Aja are still on immaculate display.
Such was the case at this Inglewood stop, where “Black Cow” and that disc’s title tune set a classy tone, while “Josie” and “Peg” picked up the pace toward the end. In between came old FM staples like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and a ripping “Bodhisattva,” with nimble guitarist Jon Herington expertly expanding upon solos from the original versions; a few moodier scene-setters, including an essential L.A. snapshot, “Babylon Sisters”; and a handful of smart rearrangements, like the swinging R&B feel applied to “Black Friday” and the slithering noir treatment of “Show Biz Kids,” its plodding rhythm replaced by syncopated funk from Keith Carlock, one of the finest drummers around. Backing vocalists the Danettes, including longtime member Carolyn Leonhart, richly handled the melody of “Dirty Work,” and apart from Becker’s bad jokes and scattershot ramblings during “Hey Nineteen,” there was at least one left-field choice: “Green Earrings,” an idiosyncratic groove with room enough for both keys man Jim Beard to lay down some organ wash and Roger Rosenberg to make his baritone sax sound like a wailing tenor.
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The crowd, which nearly filled the adjusted arena (the Forum’s upper deck was curtained off, making it comparable to L.A. Live’s Nokia Theatre), increasingly roared approval and was singing along by the finale, helping mask some of the high-end weaknesses of Fagen’s otherwise hearty and still-singular voice, just as his Ray Charles shades typically hid his gaze. Surely nothing surprised them, least of all the fact that only one of 20-plus numbers dated from later than 1980.
Perhaps next time Steely Dan will consider dishing up rarer morsels at a smaller venue, and in so doing speak more directly to the seedier underbelly of its catalog. For this larger bash, though, sticking to a time-tested formula produced predictably robust results.
Cubano Chant (instrumental intro)
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Show Biz Kids
Time Out of Mind
Things I Miss the Most
Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More
I Want To (Do Everything for You) (Joe Tex cover, band introductions)
My Old School
Reelin’ in the Years
The Untouchables Theme (exit instrumental)