Steely Dan re-creates its studio magic at the Benedum


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In its sporadic 42-year history, Steely Dan has played five gigs in Pittsburgh, all in places it didn't really belong. One was the former Civic Arena in 1974 and the other four were at the big shed in Burgettstown, beginning in '93.

On Monday night, fans here finally got the Dan in the warmth of a theater suited to its high level of jazz-pop sophistication. If you had one of those hot tickets for the sold-out Benedum show, you likely heard from someone who was ready to beg, steal or fight you for it (hopefully not the latter).

After an intimate opening set by Chicago jazz guitarist Bobby Broom, the eight-piece Steely Dan backing band arrived to expose its jazz roots with a cover of Ray Bryant's "Cubano Chant," a Latin hard-bop piece recorded by Pittsburgh native Art Blakey (and the Messengers) in 1956.

When Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and the lovely ladies strolled out, it segued seamlessly into "Black Cow," and Steely Dan was off on an almost uninterrupted run of about 15-plus classics — the kind of windfall you get when a band is not touring on a current album.

As always, the Benedum sound was immaculate and perfectly balanced.

Most people there probably saw one of the previous shows and already marveled at the sight and sound of them reproducing an "Aja" or "Deacon Blues" so precisely live.

Of course, every musician was stunning down the line, starting with Keith Carlock — don't think I've ever heard a drummer locked in so tight — bassist Freddie Washington, pianist James Beard and the four heavy jazz cats with the horns.

Left with the task of navigating the band's many varied and tricky guitar solos along with Mr. Becker was the more than capable Jon Herington. No surprise, he scorched the place on the ridiculous "Bodhisattva" solo and again on the bluegrass-y one on "Reelin' in the Years."

The talkative Becker broke the ice during "Hey Nineteen" to say it was the best Steely Dan band they've ever had and that when we left there we "would have something to write about in [our] blog."

The main difference was the 66-year-old Fagen, still looking and throwing his head back like a white Ray Charles. He's missing just the top of his vocal range live, which may have happened even in 1974, but the voice is as sly and soul-drenched as ever.

The stellar backup singers — Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, La Tanya Hall, Cindy Mizelle — were there to lift the rising choruses, and even took a lead on "Razor Boy," a lesser song without the Fagen touch.

A few other little complaints. No "Do It Again," but there were throwaways: "Two Against Nature," with its hyper and overly busy arrangement, the Becker-sung "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More" and the Joe Tex cover, "I Want To (Do Everything for You)," wrapped around the extended band intro.

They came out of that with a more satisfying run of "Josie" and "Peg" — a lot of "Aja" in this set — and "My Old School," which got some in the polite crowd up to clap and dance. "Reelin'" and the shifting "Kid Charlemagne" closed it out with confetti and pyro ... kidding.

For the most part, the band's first trip here in eight years was another shining example of a classic quote to which Mr. Becker referred:

"Without music, life would be a mistake."

He also noted that when the pair met in college and started writing songs, he figured, "Eh, this will never work." A Hall of Fame career later, we can be glad they didn't take academics too seriously back at their old school.


Scott Mervis: smervis@Post-Gazette.com; 412-263-2576. First Published August 11, 2014 12:00 AM

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