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Monday, Aug. 18, 2014 10:34 am

Steely Dan sounding fresh

Band delivers at state fair

If Walter Becker and Donald Fagen know one thing, it is how to hire musicians.

The two-man songwriting brain trust that is Steely Dan has built a legacy on a revolving door of top-flight studio players dating back to the early 1970s, a decade that saw the band dominate airwaves and endure, with the first hit coming in 1972. The band disbanded in 1981, while it was still on Billboard charts that today mean little.

The charts never did mean everything to Steely Dan. Consider the Greatest Hits album released in 1978, when Becker and Fagen were at their peak. It was a double-album release that somehow didn’t have room for “Dirty Work,” one of the group’s most enduring, and endearing, songs, but had space for such lesser-known recordings as “Kid Charlemagne.” There was, thankfully, room for both on Friday. And both were fabulous.

“Dirty Work,” in particular, stood out. The original singer, David Palmer, has long since left the band and eventually became a photographer, at least according to Wikipedia. On Friday, the group’s three backup singers did the work, completely reinventing the original recording. Where the original vocals were brilliant in a sparse, Neil Young sort of way, the live version on Friday was full and soulful, like Johnny Cash meeting Aretha Franklin as La Tanya Hall, Cindy Mizelle and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery traded solos, then got it all going on together during choruses while everyone else on stage just shut up and got out of the way.

Midway through a 54-show tour that began July 2 and is scheduled to end Sept. 21, this was a fine example of a band that is doing what it wants and how it wants. It is no surprise that setlists from shows have been showing up on message boards maintained by fans of such jam bands as Furthur. No two shows have been the same, judging by Internet postings. On Friday, you were halfway to the car before you thought to yourself, “Hey, they didn’t play ‘Deacon Blues.’” Or “Do It Again,” for that matter. And it didn’t matter.

“I Want To Do (Everything For You),” a cover of a Joe Tex song from the 1960s, wasn’t necessarily necessary, but who’s to argue? “Hey Nineteen” was nothing short of delightful, interrupted with a spoken riff from Becker about the good old days, when, if a cat played his cards right, he could get the object of his desires back to his pad, where she would soon be swooning and cutting up limes and before you knew it…

“The Cuervo Gold,” this blissful backup group interrupted in perfect harmony. “The fine Colombian. Make tonight a wonderful thing.”

Those who weren’t engaged in nostalgic chuckling were nodding their heads in time to the music, or dancing, and it didn’t look or feel weird at all. The group was in sync with itself and its audience.

“It’s great to play at a fair!” Fagen declared near the end of the show. “This is a great gig for us.” And you got the feeling that he really meant it.

Through it all, drummer Keith Carlock was masterful, driving the band – holding it accountable, even – through arrangements that came off as seamless. His playing wasn’t ostentatious, and his solo at the very end short but captivating. His talent was obvious, as Becker noted when introducing the band.

“We might as well get the best guy in the fucking universe,” Becker said upon introducing Carlock to an enthusiastic response from the audience.

Tonight, really, was a wonderful thing.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

Setlist
Big Black Cow
Aja
Hey Nineteen
Black Friday
Show Biz Kids
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Time Out Of Mind
Green Earrings
 Dirty Work
 Bodhisattva
 Babylon Sisters
 Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More
 I Want To (Do Everything For You)
 Josie
 Peg
 My Old School
 Reeling In The Years
 Kid Charlemagne (Encore)

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