ATLANTIC CITY, NJ—Seventies bands are enjoying a summer road renaissance this year as not only baby boomers are flocking to catch graying idols these days. Transcending the limiting appeal of nostalgia, Steely Dan’s 13-piece “Rent Party 2009” orchestra outdoes ‘em all with precision, virtuosity and grand splendor.
Starting with the bebop “Teenie’s Blues” by Oliver Nelson (1932-1975), it was all Roger Rosenberg’s baritone sax, Walt Weiskopf’s tenor sax, Michael Leonhart’s trumpet, Jim Pugh’s trombone, James Beard’s keyboards, Freddie Washington’s bass, Jon Herington’s guitar and Keith Carlock’s propulsive drums asserting a muscular groove.
Enter masters of ceremony/evil geniuses, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker—with the trio of soul singers Catherine Russell, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Tawatha Agee in their Motown inspired neon blue sequin dresses—to launch into the apocalyptic “Black Friday.” As Fagen’s fragile pipes go, so goes Steely Dan. On this night, he was in fine form, complete with signature sardonic sneer: “When Black Friday comes/I’ll stand down by the door/And catch the grey men when they dive from the 14th floor.”
“Aja” is stately, elegant, powerful, sublime, Beard’s piano adding soulful gospel fills. Weiskopf’s tenor is haunting. Carlock thunders on a drum solo like a July 4th fireworks finale.
The reggae-infused “Hey 19” has Fagen not exactly relating to his young lover: “Hey 19, that’s ‘Retha Franklin! She don’t remember the Queen of Soul?” Yet our sleazy suitor is willing to set misgivings aside, (with the assistance of “the Quervo Gold and the fine Columbian” weed), to “slide on down” with his eager damsel as a subtle new horn chart, nifty Becker ax work and Pugh’s trombone outro wrap things up in a tidy bow.
The lights dim, Beard’s organ and Leonhart’s trumpet sets the mood, and the ladies shine on Can’t Buy A Thrill’s” Dirty Work, a tawdry affair of guilty seduction: “Light the candle/Put the lock upon the door/You have sent the maid home early/Like a thousand times before.”
Aja’s “Peg” might seem simply an upbeat radio favorite but it’s vintage Dan: Combining catchy pop and a sizzling Herington guitar riff with caustic cynicism about the exploitation of teens in the ‘70s porn industry. The band shimmers, crackles and swings with the cool swagger of a finely tuned engine. No flash, costumes or gratuitous theatrics, just some seriously talented cats. Yet their passion demonstrates the joy in the moment.
Unlike the Beacon Manhattan shows where they did Aja, Gaucho and The Royal Scam in their entireties plus an all-request show, the Borgata set, custom-designed for the (highly appreciative) Atlantic City crowd, was, indeed, a best-of list: “Home At Last,” “Do It Again,” a cover of Motown’s “Love Is Like An Itchin’ In My Heart” by The Supremes (for band intros), “Babylon Sisters,” “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More (with a rare’n’fine Becker vocal), “Black Cow,” “Josie,” “Don’t Take Me Alive” and “Kid Charlemagne” with “Reelin’ In The Years” and “My Old School” as encores before Fagen, Becker and the ladies walk offstage to Gato Barbieri’s “Last Tango In Paris” by the band.
Every song in the set, especially the sordid tales of miscreants, aging hipsters and life’s losers, was a gem. The lighting was upgraded. The curtain backdrop contained warm tones of black, purple, teal and red. The solos were dramatic flashes, tasty, subtle and expertly choreographed. Props to the venue and the Dan audio team: Acoustics were flat-out superior to the both the Beacon and Montclair NJ’s Wellmont. Each vocal, each player was crisp and separate, allowing one to savor every instrument. Every musician in this ensemble played his ass off. Fagen, battling a cold, was at his bold snarky finest. Drummer Carlock is a monster. Guitarist Herington, filling the giant shoes of past Dan guitarists, is razor sharp, a flat-out assassin.
Hey, the Dan ain’t everybody’s cup of latte. Fagen sets the tone. The unyielding, almost maniacally precise arrangements, the edgy, complex chord structures, the sheer lack of any sentiment whatsoever, and the man’s relentless taunting cynicism will leave some feeling as though they’ve been mocked, or worse, dressed down. But to the Dan fan it’s all manna from heaven and over 3,700 others on this night wholeheartedly agreed.