THE STEELY DAN INTERNET RESOURCE
By BOBBY REED
Walter Becker (guitar, bass) and Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) were at their commercial peak between 1972 and 1978, a period in which they landed eight singles on the Billboard pop chart. Yet, the duo stopped touring in 1974, right at the point when most bands would be eager to parlay hit songs into lucrative gate receipts.
Steely Dan finally resumed touring in 1994. Although Becker and Fagan collaborated on respective solo albums in the early '90s, there was a 20-year gap between the Steely Dan studio albums "Gaucho'' and "Two Against Nature.'' The latter disc won four Grammy awards in 2001, including album of the year.
Friday night at the United Center, Steely Dan did exactly what fans hoped they would do back in the late '70s--play a concert in support of a new studio album. But instead of focusing on material from the witty "Everything Must Go'' (which was released in June), Steely Dan climbed into a time-warp machine and pretended it was 1979.
The 21-song concert was pure nostalgia, but superb musicianship kept the show from feeling like a rote exercise or merely a convenient way to make a truckload of cash.
In his song introductions, Fagen thrice referred to "going back to the '70s.'' The duo only played three songs from the new album, and these tunes illustrated just how little the slightly funky jazz-rock of Steely Dan has evolved in the past quarter-century.
The new tune "Things I Miss the Most''--with its slinky rhythms and twisted, materialistic narrator--fit in perfectly alongside Steely Dan classics like "Josie,'' "FM'' and "Kid Charlemagne.''
There were few surprises at the United Center, save for the fact that the normally non-singing Becker assumed lead vocal duties on "Haitian Divorce'' and "Slang of Ages.'' His voice isn't nearly as distinctive as Fagen's, but hearing Becker sing lead provided a cheap thrill, akin to what it would be like to actually hear the short guy in Penn & Teller talk.
Fagen was particularly effective on "Babylon Sisters,'' standing on his tiptoes to reach the higher notes.
Becker and Fagen were backed by a top-shelf supporting cast of eight musicians and three female vocalists. Tenor saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus (best known for his stint in the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers) added understated, graceful solos to "Black Cow'' and "Hey Nineteen.'' Tom Barney fueled the fire of "Peg'' by slapping the strings of his bass, instead of merely plucking them.
Fagen worked an unusual Windy City reference into the show by presenting the trio of backing vocalists with new copies of "The Chicago Manual of Style.'' It was an odd joke that was lost on most of the crowd, with the exception of any proofreaders or book editors who were in attendance.