If there is one locale that serves as a perfect backdrop to Steely Dan’s tunes about aged, down-and-out hipsters, morally bankrupt players and all-around seedy characers, it’s the casino resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey. This past Saturday, the Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker swooped down on the Trump Taj Mahal resort and casino (which Becker called a “temple of capitalism”) for one of the last stops on their “Steelyard ‘Sugartooth’ McDan” tour. The duo, joined by frequent collaborator Michael McDonald, might well have drawn one of the un-coolest crowds in concert history: dudes in jean shorts, tube socks and white sneakers; father-and-son duos; Jersey girls with big hair; a stray hippie or two. But Becker and Fagen, joined by an ace team of nine session musicians, played a solid two-hour set of crowd favorites from their classic records.
At exactly 9:30 p.m., the houselights in the airy, black-box arena dimmed as the backup musicians appeared onstage. As they warmed up with a jazz vamp, Fagen and Becker strolled out and launched into the swinging rocker “Bodhisattva,” from 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy, immediately followed by a lackluster version of “Time Out of Mind.” Keyboardist Fagen welcomed the crowd with a wry “Hiya, kids. How’s it shakin’?”
Becker and Fagen are notorious for their obsessive perfectionism in the studio; that work ethic is all but impossible to re-create in a live setting. The fan favorite “Dirty Work” didn’t quite click, and the complicated jazz fusion of “Aja” lost steam towards the end. Other tunes, however, took on new life in front of the audience. During the paean to a relationship between a middle-aged dude and a sultry college co-ed on “Hey Nineteen,” trumpet player Mike Leonhart and trombonist Jim Pugh took centerstage to play a round of dueling horns. “Right before the show, our trumpet player and trombone player had a terrible argument,” Fagen announced jokingly. “So I thought it’d be a good time to have them come in front of the audience and air it out.” After a few bars, Fagen interrupted: “Alright,” he shouted. “I’ve had enough.”
Things picked up when Michael McDonald, who opened for Steely Dan with an icky run of Doobie Brothers and Motown covers, joined the group midway through their set. From “Show Biz Kids” to the classic rock radio staple “Peg,” the crowd mustered up enough energy to groove in their seats and sing along to every word. For the encore, the Dan did two of their most nostalgic songs: “FM,” about the days when Elvis ruled radio, and “My Old School.” Only then did the die-hards get out of their chairs to dance in the aisles. For some, the show was no doubt the crowning event in an otherwise bleak Saturday night. For others, it was simply a prelude to the evening’s main event: an opportunity to fritter away their life savings.