Steely Dan’s music resides at the intersection of highly polished precision and jazz-fueled jams, and I’ll readily admit that’s an intersection I’ve spent the better part of my lifelong musical fandom actively avoiding.
That said, the Steely Dan appearance in Salt Lake City Saturday night was clearly a big deal for the fans who made it one of the first Red Butte Garden summer concerts to sell out when the season slate was announced. I don’t know if it was the first time ever that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker brought their project to Zion–Steely Dan’s been kicking around off and on since the ’70s, after all–but it’s the first time in my two decades-plus in Utah that I remember them coming to town.
Steely Dan is known as a “musician’s band,” and the reason why was clear from the moment the backing musicians, dubbed the Bipolar Allstars for this 2013 tour, preceded Becker and Fagen to the stage with an instrumental workout of Gerry Mulligan’s “Blueport.” Featuring four horns, guitar, bass, drums and keyboards (and abetted by three female backup singers known as the Borderline Brats), the players on the road with Steely Dan were remarkably entertaining throughout the show, whether taking one of the seemingly endless solos dotting the songs, or tightening up for Steely Dan’s myriad FM staples from yesteryear. Peeking at my Facebook feed during the show, it appeared that every musician in town was at Red Butte Garden posting their thrilled responses to the show, save for the folks with gigs at the weekend-long Uncle Uncanny festival up in Heber.
With the guitar-playing Becker content to blend in with the band, save a couple of turns on vocals and a couple more nonsensical rants and band introductions, Fagen naturally took the spotlight for much of the night. Mostly sitting behind his keyboards or moving around the stage blowing into a recorder, Fagen led the band into the show-opening “Gold Teeth,” “Aja” and “Hey Nineteen,” the crowd on its feet for every second.
After “Showbiz Kids,” Fagen accidentally flip-flopped the band’s pre-planned next couple songs, leading them into “Black Cow” before “Black Friday.” It’s a testament to the skilled players on stage that the mix-up was imperceptible, only coming to attention when Fagen explained what he did after the band finished “Black Cow.”
“Time Out of Mind” and “Godwhacker” led into Becker’s taking over vocals for “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” followed by what I thought was the best performance of the night, an energetic take on “Bodhisattva” that truly showcased the band in all its glory. Drummer Keith Carlock was a powerhouse throughout the show, locking in with bassist Freddie Washington to give Fagen and Becker’s songs a strong backbone no matter what direction they chose. Likewise, the horn section–Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Jim Pugh on trombone, Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax and Walt Weiskopf on saxophone–proved invaluable to the songs, and helped draw this non-Steely fan into performances that otherwise might have left me cold.
The Borderline Brats had their own chance to showcase their considerable vocal chops on “Razor Boy” before Steely Dan thrilled the crowd with old favorite “Deacon Blues.” After Becker used a cover of Joe Tex’s “I Want To (Do Everything for You)” to formally introduce the musicians on stage, and the band followed up with “Josie,” I’d heard enough, even though there were a few songs left in the show.
After all, if I want to hear “Reelin’ in the Years,” I just have to turn on any classic-rock station in American and wait 10 minutes.