Friday, July 07, 2000

Steely Dan revival a mix of fun surprises, letdowns

By Chris Varias
Enquirer contributor

        Measuring the PBS broadcast of the Cincinnati Pops' 4th of July performance at Riverbend against what went down there the following night, it seems Erich Kunzel is out-rocking fellow jazzy popster Donald Fagen these days.

        Mr. Fagen's band, Steely Dan, made three of the best rock albums of the mid '70s: Pretzel Logic, Countdown to Ecstasy and Katy Lied. Then this languid sort of jazz-rock came to the forefront of their sound until they stopped making records 20 years ago.

        Steely Dan's Wednesday night show, which clocked in at just over two hours of music plus a 20-minute intermission, was, as expected, full of those pleasant sounding, relaxed old hits, includ ing “FM,” “Peg,” “Deacon Blues,” “Babylon Sisters,” “Hey Nineteen” and “Josie.”

        Just about everything else was a surprise.

        It was a surprise that “Cousin Dupree,” from their new album (and first studio release since 1980's Gaucho),would prove to be the most inspired performance. This was a pleasant surprise.

        They played lots of lesser-known songs from those three classic albums, such “Daddy Don't Live in that New York City No More,” “Monkey in Your Soul,” “Bad Sneakers,” “The Boston Rag” and “Night by Night.” These too could have been pleasant surprises if not for the way Mr. Fagen, his partner Walter Becker, and their 11-piece band rendered them — as latter-day Dan, as soft rock toeing the margins of smooth jazz.

        The versions of “Daddy Don't Live” and “Monkey in Your Soul” were especially disappointing. Mr. Fagen sings the recorded versions of both, but Mr. Becker sang them Wednesday. Why? To give him a reason to show up, perhaps. He was basically unneeded amid the A-list ensemble. He's a good guitar player but didn't match up at all to their hired gun Jon Herington. And his singing demonstrated why Mr. Fagen is the band's vocalist.

        There was one memorable moment when the band was able to burst out of the soft-rock/smooth-jazz restraints. Tenor saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus earned a couple nice rounds of applause for solos during “Deacon Blues.” If your eyes were closed, you might have imagined it was Sonny Rollins bopping up there.


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