The last time Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen performed at New York's Beacon Theater was in 1991 with the "New York Rock and Soul Revue," an informal collective of musicians that included Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald. Tuesday night, some fifteen years later, the singer and keyboardist came home.
While Fagen is promoting his third solo album, Morph the Cat out March 14th, the crowd -- fans armed with briefcases, binoculars and Blackberry handhelds -- was eager for their Steely Dan favorites. And Fagen did not disappoint, performing a varied set list of what he announced would be "three bold [solo] albums and stuff from the Steely Dan files."
Backed by a nine-piece group of ace session musicians, Fagen opened with the obscure Steely Dan tune "Here at the Western World," made livelier thanks to drummer Keith Karlock's lock-step groove. But with Steely Dan cohort Walter Becker absent, Fagan stuck mostly to solo tunes for the first part of the show. Among the highlights were the relaxed cocktail-jazz of "The Nightfly," the futuristic jazz-funk of "New Frontier," and the new numbers "H-Gang" and "Brite Nightgown."
When, midway through, Fagen announced a special guest, Walter Becker would've been a likely guess. But surprisingly, Canadian singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright (sister of Rufus, daughter of Loudon) strolled out onto the stage to perform what Fagen jokingly called a "scary song," her own sultry slow-burner "Year of the Dragon," with Fagen on melodica. The audience, however, couldn't make the leap, and after Wainwright left the stage, a defensive Fagen asked the audience, "What?"
But the mood quickly picked up as the band launched into the perennial Dan favorite "FM." The group stretched the song into a nice groove -- until the bandleader raised his arm to signal the end, a gesture he made to close out nearly every tune.
Throughout his career, Fagen has always preferred the secluded confines of the studio to exhausting tour schedules, but he appeared relaxed and confident with the intimate setting. At the conclusion of the reggae-tinged "The Goodbye Look," from his solo album The Nightfly, he deadpanned, "We be master-jammin'."
During most of the two-hour concert, the fifty-eight-year old Fagen was exuberant. For the encore, he whipped out the bluesy classic "Pretzel Logic," the oldest Dan tune performed that night. When he crooned "These things are gone forever/Over a long time ago," you could hardly hear him as the baby-boomers jubilantly sang along and clapped their hands. And while the crowd noise never achieved the deafening level of shrieking Beatles fans at Giants Stadium, what more could you expect from this audience? Baby boomers need to get up early for their morning commute.