Steely Dan Returns to Beacon Theatre for Nostalgic “Aja” Show


Walter Becker (left), Keith Carlock and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan perform at the Beacon Theatre in New York on Oct. 18.

(Photo: Ernest Gregory)

When guitarist Walter Becker and vocalist-keyboardist Donald Fagen—who together make up the group Steely Dan—dropped their magnum opus LP, Aja, in 1977, it was proclaimed an instant classic.

The album featured a unique combination of jazz-inflected harmonies, finessed soul grooves and literary-laced lyrics. The group’s refusal to play live after 1974 further enhanced their mythic stature.

Nearly two decades later, the band’s performance drought ended in 1993, with a 10-show engagement at New York City’s historic Beacon Theatre. And since that historic performance, generations of “Dan” fans have flocked to concert halls to see the band play. Over the years, Steely Dan has repeatedly offered a concert program that includes Aja in its entirety.

On Oct. 18 at the Beacon, the graying of Becker and Fagen’s physical forms stood in stark contrast to their infectious enthusiasm. Buoyed by their superb, jazz-literate ensemble—drummer Keith Carlock, keyboardist Jim Beard, guitarist Jon Herington, bassist Freddie Washington, saxophonists Roger Rosenberg and Walt Weiskopf, trombonist Jim Pugh and trumpeter/musical director Michael Leonhart—the dynamic duo also incorporated a trio of background vocalists into their sound. Known as The Danettes, the vocalists included Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle and La Tanya Hall.

That lineup presented a unique challenge for Becker and Fagen. After all, the recording sessions for Aja featured a star-studded roster of elite musicians—from guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour to drummers Bernard Purdie and Steve Gadd. Could the current batch of intrepid musicians distill all those distinct sounds into their own equally evocative statements?


From the medium-funk intro of the opener “Black Cow,” this crew managed to stay true to the tone and timbre of the LP, while laying down their own terrific, 21st-century take on the material.

With Fagen’s achey-breakey, New York-accented vocals mellowing like fine wine, he belted out the immortal lyrics “In the corner of my eye, I saw you at Rudy’s/ You were very high…,” and the sold-out crowd sang with the leader, word for word.

When it came time for Beard’s keyboard solo, he changed the sonic zip code of Victor Feldman’s original solo from its lean, mean Los Angeles-born lines to the down-home, function-at-the-junction of Beale Street.

The instrumental zenith of the evening was the group’s powerful and passionate rendering of the album’s title track, arguably, Becker and Fagen’s most complex work. An eight-plus minute melding of rock and post-bop jazz, the song was made even more immortal by tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s penetrating and pointillistic solo on the record.

Rosenberg bravely and boldly delivered his own equally algorithmic baritone sax solo, drawing from an impressive Mount Olympus of saxophone influences, from Gerry Mulligan to John Coltrane.

Carlock’s vivid and volcanic drumming—an amazing amalgam of rhythms—lifted the bandstand. Fagen’s nifty melodica playing provided the right Eastern seasoning, which blended well with the Buddha-like statues that adorned the theater.

When Fagen sang on the haunting “Deacon Blues, ” Weiskopf provided his own terrific take on the classic saxophone riff with his Parker-mooded alto spotlight. By the time Steely Dan got to “Home At Last”—the band’s bluesy, mid-tempo ode to Homer’s Odyssey—the mostly baby boomer audience was on their feet dancing. It was quite clear that while the audience appreciated the impressive, non-stop performance of the LP, it wanted more.

So when Fagen, declared that Aja was over, and that the band was “about to get into some random shit,” the audience got what they wanted: a pleasing potpourri of greatest hits. Highlights included a souped-up version of “Bodhisattva,” a bass-heavy take on “Hey Nineteen” a twangy “Black Friday,” “Reelin’ In The Years” “Two Against Nature,” “Kid Charlemagne” and the lone non-Becker/Fagen song, David Palmer’s beautiful ballad, “Dirty Work,” which featured the individual talents of the Danettes.

And while the band shined, clearly the night belong to Becker. His superb guitar went to the well of the blues—every note pregnant with purpose and poise. For five decades, he and Fagen have made significant contributions to the world of jazz. And they ain’t done yet.

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