Oh the ‘70s, there certainly was some dreck on the radio back then. If you weren’t around for those years, just imagine what it was like to sit in the car with a top-40-loving parent and face aural assaults from Donny Osmond or Dr. Hook. Or Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka or Olivia Newton-John. There were no Walkmans yet, much less iPods. Short of changing the station and risking serious repercussions, there was no escaping the torture of “Mandy.”
But now and then, something cut through the crap. Something like “Do It Again.” You found yourself bobbing your head to that sandy under-rhythm while sucking in its snake-charmed melody as if you hadn’t breathed in ages. It grooved. It rocked. It was, to borrow the words of Donald Fagen, eminently hip.
Then you caught the double-time ennui of “show biz kids making movies of themselves” and the shiny sheen of California tumblin’ into the sea, and recognized the sound of salvation. The antidote to “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Half-Breed” and the post-Beatles insult of “Live and Let Die.” This wasn’t bloated prog-rock or touchy-feely folk. It had soul. And sarcasm. And edge. You got that vinyl home and practically disintegrated it. Ecstasy, indeed.
That’s why bands like Steely Dan still sell tickets decades after their names last appeared on Billboard charts. And why fans don’t seem to mind that set lists for the current Rockabye Gollie Angel tour closely resemble those from the last few tours. Those songs still evoke something in us, flashing us back to the euphoria of youthful discovery. But it’s one thing to regurgitate dated-sounding oldies for nostalgic boomers; it’s another to present material that sounds timeless — even current — because it was so well crafted in the first place.
The set Fagen and Steely Dan mate Walter Becker presented July 18 at the Austin 360 Amphitheater actually couldn’t have been much tastier — particularly because the bill also included Elvis Costello & the Imposters (though opening-act status seemed dubious for a guy who’s got more chart history than the headliners). Plucking nuggets from Can’t Buy A Thrill through Gaucho (with the exception of Pretzel Logic, oddly), their finely honed two-hour show steered clear of lesser-quality hits (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”; “FM”) in favor of liberal doses from their two finest albums, Countdown to Ecstasy and Aja.
Fagen and Becker have long since learned to relish the joys of performing live, even as they render tunes Fagen admits they must play — a list apparently including “Peg,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Josie” and “Kid Charlamagne,” followed by “My Old School,” “Aja,” “Bodhisattva,” “Black Friday” and “Show Biz Kids.” That’s the order of the top nine most-performed Dan songs according to setlist.fm, every one of which, thankfully, made the Austin list, along with 10, 11 and 12: “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Time Out of Mind” and “Babylon Sisters.”
“You’re probably gonna know a lot of these tunes,” Fagen said with characteristic understatement. “If you don’t know ‘em, pretend that you know ‘em.”
Backed by a stellar 12-member ensemble, Becker offered elegant, stuttery guitar solos on songs like “Hey Nineteen” — along with an extended stream-of-consciousness monologue in which he somehow related the status of Pluto to why music “was so important to us back in the day.” It was, he said, because “only music could lift us all up and unite all of us together.” After several minutes, he brought it around to what couples might want to do after the show. Beverages were mentioned; recipes were recited. Eventually, that gave the audience its chance to lustily shout the line containing two of rock music’s most memorable product references: Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian.
If only he’d stuck to guitar and spoken musings. Unfortunately, Becker also handled lead vocals on “Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More.” It was the only musical misstep of the night. (The lighting was another story, vacillating between too flashy and too dark.) Far more common were moments such as the musical conversation Fagen and Becker held, via melodica and guitar, on “Time Out of Mind.”
When he wasn’t out front blowing the hooter, Fagen swayed behind his electric piano. With his gradient glasses and side-to-side movements, he looked so much like a white Ray Charles, several people noted it afterward. The front of his keyboard carried the only stage decoration: a montage of jazz greats.
Down front, the dancing didn’t commence in earnest till they broke out the tune that stands as perhaps their finest single achievement: the deliciously funky, insanely melodic “My Old School.” Becker and guitarist/music director Jon Herington traded leads while Fagan related the 46-year-old tale of their undergraduate drug bust.
Earlier in the show, Fagen introduced Becker with the statement, “Fifty years I’ve been making music with this guy, and what can I say? So far, so good.”
Yeah, on this night, it was.
Costello and the Imposters — the superb unit of Pete Thomas on drums, Steve Nieve on keyboards and Davey Faragher on bass — had a decent night, despite playing straight into the setting, 95-degree Texas sun. The ever dapper Costello absorbed those rays in a black three-piece suit and shirt, offset by a cream-colored fedora. It didn’t look like lightweight linen. Remarkably, he didn’t look like he was sweating, either.
Opening with “The River in Reverse,” the too-quick hour-long set scattered deeper tracks such as “Either Side of the Same Town” and “Bedlam” among classics including “Watching the Detectives,” “Accidents will Happen” “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” “Pump It Up.”
Costello’s buttery voice was in fine form, and his musical wit was well-matched with the headliners’. On this night, both acts expertly allowed fans to experience the true measure of their artistry: their ability to continually turn songs they’ve played countless times into versions simultaneously familiar and new. Even “Alison” and Costello’s closing cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” underwent some rearranging. Which only added to their timeless energy.