For a band long notorious for its obsession with studio perfection – and subsequent disdain for performing live – iconic jazz-rock act Steely Dan put on quite a lively show Thursday night at a sold-out Mizner Park Amphitheatre in Boca Raton as part of its Mood Swings tour.
Led by founding masterminds Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the group powered through a two-hour set peppered with most of its classic-rock staples, plus a few jazz and blues excursions buoyed by a 10-piece band – including an excellent four-piece horn section. The Borderline Brats, three slinky female soul singers who also pitched in on percussion instruments including maracas and tambourines, provided the crucial backup vocals so central to the group’s sound.
The big question going in to the show was whether Steely Dan’s crisp, precise production genius – Fagen and Becker have been known to demand from their session musicians as many as 40 takes for a single riff – would translate live. The answer is a resounding “yes,” as many of the songs sounded musically as pristine and tight as their recorded versions, which for less polished bands could come off as a bit stale or wooden, but with Steely Dan masterpieces was immensely satisfying, even thrilling.
The memorable guitar solos – and their sound – in particular had to be perfect on favorites such as “Hey Nineteen,” “Black Friday,” “Bodhisattva” and of course “Reelin’ in the Years,” and they were, mostly thanks to amazingly fast lead guitarist Jon Herington (Becker enjoyed his share of lead guitar as well).
And the horns – trombone, trumpet, tenor and baritone sax – were an integral part of all the songs, with several stunning solos, particularly sax on the jazzy “Your Gold Teeth,” the sultry, breezy “Aja” and the swaggering “Show Biz Kids”; and a weirdly brilliant trombone jaunt during “Hey Nineteen.”
Additional props must be given to drummer Keith Carlock, who was solid all night, and whose mindblowing solos on “Aja” and “Bodhisattva” drew standing ovations.
Just because the band nailed all the crucial musical riffs didn’t mean Becker and Fagen – long considered studio hermits - would limit themselves to simply replicating each song note by note. In fact, the duo did well to stretch many of the songs to allow for musical improvisation, as well as a couple of hilarious, rambling monologues by Becker with several drug references – most notably during “Hey Nineteen,” leading up to the lyrics, “The Cuervo Gold; the fine Colombian; make tonight a wonderful thing” (his past troubles with drugs are well known).
Fagen commanded his own odd stage presence behind his keyboard, with his wrap-around glasses and quirky mannerisms recalling both Ray Charles and Joe Cocker. And although his vocals were slipping on some of the high notes during “Peg” (Michael McDonald’s distinctive backing vocals were also missed), “My Old School” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” Fagen was able to forge through it, as a veteran singer learns over the years how to do. And after a few minutes of rest, for the encore, “Kid Charlemagne,” his voice had returned to its full strength.
One complaint on an otherwise stellar night: Rather than launch into a six-song stretch that was sleepy and unremarkable if it hadn’t been for “Bodhisattva,” why not replace some of the forgettable songs with classics such as “Deacon Blues,” “Babylon Sisters” or “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”?
Otherwise, Steely Dan – which took its name after a strap-on dildo in the William S. Burroughs novel “Naked Lunch” – provided plenty of oomph.