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Concert Reviews:
Steely Dan reels in some great years at Meadow Brook

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Friday, August 30, 2019

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ROCHESTER HILLS -- For a band that was notoriously averse to touring for nearly 20 years, Steely Dan has turned into a live juggernaut since its return to the road back in 1993 (at the Palace of Auburn Hills, no less).

The 13-member troupe's stop Thursday night, Aug. 29, at the Meadow Brook Amphitheatre -- the second show of its current North American Sweet Tour -- demonstrated again that co-founder Donald Fagen and company have learned its crowd-pleasing ways well, tossing just enough deep-catalog digs amidst the greatest hits to satisfy fans of all stripes. The fact that it also remains a powerhouse musical ensemble whose complex precision rivals anything that will play at this weekend's Detroit Jazz Festival meant even warhorses such as "Hey Nineteen," "Kid Charlemagne," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "Peg" sounded fresh and robust on a warm summer night.

And choices such as "Sign in Stranger," "Third World Man" and "I Got the News" -- as well as the Latin-flavored "The Goodbye Look," from Fagen's 1982 solo album "The Nightfly" -- were welcome nods to depths of Steely Dan's ouvre.

Thursday's nearly two-hour show, drawn almost entirely from Steely Dan's first seven albums and eschewing anything from 2000 and beyond, was also the group's first in the metro area since co-founder Walter Becker died of esophageal cancer during September of 2017 (Steely Dan did perform at Caesars Windsor the following month). Fagen -- who's battled Becker's estate in court over control of the band -- made a cursory mention thanking Banker for his songwriting contributions during the encore, but for the most part he was present in spirit, with new second guitarist Connor Kennedy taking the lead spotlight on songs such as "Time Out of Mind," "Bodhisattva" and "My Old School."

Steely Dan's veterans, meanwhile, came up characteristically big during the 19-song set -- most notably guitarist and musical director Jon Herington and drummer Keith Carlock, the latter treating "Aja" as a limb-flailing percussive exposition. The show gave every one of the musicians an opportunity to flex some muscle, though, whether it was the three Danettes backing vocalists taking lead on "Dirty Work," keyboardist Jim Beard's striking work on "I Got the News" or the four-member horn section playing trumpeter Michael Leonhart's arrangements ensemble or taking individual solos. The show-opening rendition of Oliver Nelson's "Teenie's Blues," played before Fagen came on stage, was an early indicator of the group's impressive instrumental firepower.

And Fagen, who kept his stage chatter to a minimum, was in good voice and clearly comfortable in his role as sole frontman as he switched between a Fender Rhodes electric piano and melodica, which allowed him to come front and center during "Aja" and "Time Out of Mind." Dry-witted but gracious, he told the Meadow Brook crowd before "Reelin' in the Years" that "we can't wait to come back" -- and feeling that was unreservedly mutual.

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