Steely Dan @ The Sands Steel Stage at MusikFest

BETHLEHEM, PA—MusikFest is a unique spectacle, a grand 10-day annual celebration of 300 acts on 14 stages (11 of which are free). Add the international cuisine, cafés, restaurants and tens of thousands of people walking around with their favorite alcoholic beverages like it’s the French Quarter in New Orleans and you have some idea of the ambiance of this national August event. The Sands Casino is right down the block rising amid the hulking ruins of the defunct Bethlehem Steel complex with its silent brick factories, abandoned warehouses, and ghostly 19th century Industrial Age blast furnaces now bathed at night in purple, teal, red and orange light.

The brand new Sands Steel Stage was filled to its 7,200 seating capacity when Steely Dan’s “Shuffle Diplomacy Tour” strutted into town and started at 8:00 p.m. sharp. Under a moonlit sky, the formidable rhythm section took the stage. Led by a smokin’ hot horn ensemble—Walt Weiskopf on tenor, Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax, Michael Leonhart on trumpet and Jim Pugh on trombone—lead guitarist Jon Herington, bassist Freddie Washington, piano virtuoso Jim Beard and “the engine,” propulsive drummer Keith Carlock, leapt into Cannonball Adderley’s hard-bop jazz classic, “Dizzy’s Bidness.” Every jazz fan in the crowd quickly learned these are some seriously talented cats. Every rock fan in the crowd already knew this would be no nostalgic revival of a fading ‘70s band.

Enter three soulful Motown-esque singers, The Embassy Brats, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, Cindy Mizelle and Catherine Russell, followed by Masters of Ceremony/Steely Dan founders and composers, guitarist/satirist Walter Becker and the snarky, enduring voice of The Dan, Donald Fagen.

No hesitation, the 13-piece ensemble dove into the swingin’ contagious “Your Gold Teeth,” from 1973’s Countdown To Ecstasy. After 20 full years of mysterious onstage silence from 1973 to 1992, Steely Dan began touring again in 1993. The 2011 band represents the absolute peak of their creative power. The key to success has always hinged on the health of Donald’s potent, sometimes fragile pipes, and his ability to navigate some of rock’s most demanding vocal challenges. Within seconds, themes developed that set the tone for the evening: Phenomenal acoustics, an air-tight band, and Donald, absolutely locked in.

Sublime renditions of “Aja,” “Black Friday,” “Hey 19,” “Black Cow” and “Time Out Of Mind” followed. Each song maintained its roots, and yet, this touring season, Walter and Donald have loosened the reins, allowing their supremely skilled players to develop complex extended solos.

This is a band that presents glistening, elegant, funky, soulful, meticulously crafted and executed compositions juxtaposed by Fagen’s jagged, unsympathetic sneer-weaving sordid tales of unredeemable losers, hustlers, criminals, addicts, con artists and dangerous women. As the horn solos soared, as Jim Beard showcased his world class chops on the ivories, Keith Carlock’s muscular backbeat and Jon Herington’s wicked razor-sharp guitar riffs sliced through one classic after the next, and we were all reminded that amid the funky grooves and complex jazzy chord structures, Steely Dan is first and foremost a rock ’n’ roll band. Among the many highlights, 50 minutes into the 2:15 set, Weiskopf’s stunning tenor solo for the re-engineered funked-out rendition of “Show Biz Kids,” had my neighbor to the left, a complete stranger, turn to me and say, “they’re perfect.”

“Bodhisattva,” “FM,” “Godwhacker,” “Dirty Work” and James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” (used as a jam to introduce the players) preceded “Home At Last,” “Josie,” “Peg,” “My Old School,” “Reelin’ In The Years” and the “Kid Charlemagne” encore. The night ended as it started with the rhythm section jamming on a jazz classic, in this case Gato Barbieri’s “Theme From Last Tango in Paris,” as Walter, Donald and the Embassy Brats strutted off the stage.