Steely Dan’s jazzy, grad-school rock hit hard at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday, closing the season with explosive precision.
When they quit touring in 1974, few foresaw they’d resume 20 years later and be a tremendous performing unit 10 years later. Their last recording, 2003’s “Everything Must Go,” implied they were going out of business. But they were just going out of the record business, shrewdly recruiting what Becker rightly called “a slammin’ band” of eight ace players (horns, keys, guitar, bass and drums) and three tremendous singers to shuffle impressively through their deep (nine albums, 1972-2003) catalog.
The band grooved hot Sunday night before founder Donald Fagen did his odd, Ed Sullivan walk to the electric piano and partner Walter Becker strapped on a guitar. Everything was well warmed up for “Black Cow,” a stutter-step rocker with strong backing vocals behind Fagen’s wry whine. In “Aja,” he wandered center-stage to play melodica, bopping back to the keyboard as guitarist Jon Herington, then Becker, soloed, setting the table for Walt Weiskopf’s tenor sax break.
For perfectionist curmudgeons, Fagen and Becker had fun right out of the box. And, why not: they lead a band stronger and tighter than Springsteen’s E Street crew.
In “Hey Nineteen,” Becker launched a digressive rap: He doesn’t drink any more (citing “the settlement, probation report and doctor’s orders”) but suggested the show would take everyone back to when we all could drink plenty and had pretty girl- or boyfriends. He teased the singers into naming “Cuervo Gold” to lead everyone back into “Hey Nineteen,” the rap and the music cutting loose a nostalgic bonanza.
In the rocking “Black Friday” up next, fans first started jumping to their feet, rewarding each uptempo tune with sweaty jubilation, especially “Bodhisattva,” “Peg,” “My Old School” and “Reelin’ In the Years,” played in that order late, before a similarly zippy encore of “Kid Charlemagne.”
Subtler tunes grabbed the crowd, too, but more gently — the graceful groove of “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number,” the Latin thump of “Show Biz Kids,” the tropical breeze of “Babylon Sister” and the sweet kiss-off of “Dirty Work,” especially the latter sung entirely by backup vocalists Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle and La Tanya Hall, all sounding and looking beautiful.
The show was perfect, in a very good way. Simply sounding just like the jewel-like Steely Dan records was an impressive feat, but they played every tricky rhythm or chord change with spirit, too; more than just skill. Fagen sang almost everything, Becker taking over for goofy raps and intros and to sing “Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More.” Every player and singer got solos, and everybody onstage seemed to enjoy making such smart, tricky music in such a strong, swinging machine.
As always, Steely Dan served up their distinctive, unmatchable paradox: How could such bitter, downbeat lyrics feed such fun music?
Becker and Fagen strolled off after “Kid Charlemagne,” but the band kept rocking, playing the theme to TV’s “The Untouchables,” nailing down the claim that no big rock band could touch them.