Mixing old songs and new, Fagen finds the groove

Boston Globe, March 13, 2006

No one has taken the place of Steely Dan. A generation ago, guitarist Walter Becker and singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen built an unmatched creative hub connecting rock, jazz, blues, and soul. Their taut sound, technical yet warm, and their lyrics, crucial vignettes of ’70s dystopia and Reagan-era dyspepsia, sped them into the pop pantheon. There’s a finality to Steely Dan, a sense of arrival, that wards off imitators and apprentices.

So it is left to Steely Dan’s founders to be themselves, both as a duo and individually, in what Fagen, performing Saturday night at the Boston Opera House, demurely called his “three widely separated albums over the past 25 years.” On tour behind the newest, “Morph the Cat,” out this month, Fagen and his characteristically excellent band delivered a generous two-hour set of some new and many old songs, plenty to feel the magic.

And magic it was, once Fagen, in imperfect voice due to a cold, growled through “Green Flower Street” from 1982’s “The Nightfly,” and into that record’s title song, eventually locating the right power and pitch. The residual hoarseness brought out the bluesiness of the next song, “New Frontier.” “Bright Nightgown,” a big guitar and keys jam from the new record, made the already loose band more so.

Reverence set in with the opening bars of Steely Dan songs. They were non-obvious picks at first, the reflective “Third World Man” and guardedly optimistic “Home at Last,” leading into “Black Cow” from the pinnacle album “Aja.”

The good vibes flowing, Fagen moved to some new songs and a 1950s cool-jazz piece before returning to the classics. The seven-man band and two back-up singers had ample room to express the outrageously tight musicianship that marks the Steely Dan experience, with saxophonist Walt Weiskopf in particular called on to work overtime.

Near evening’s end Fagen rolled out “FM,” the Steely Dan number whose refrain, “No static at all,” describes both the ultra-precise sound and a state of mutual connection and ease. There was little doubt that most in the audience could second that emotion.