With their complex, jazz-indebted compositions and wry lyrics, Steely Dan probably aren’t the first artist that comes to mind when you think of classic bands doing Las Vegas residencies. The boisterous swagger of Aerosmith or the fist-pumping precision of Def Leppard seem better suited for a city as ferociously un-subtle as Vegas. Even as the town underwent a decades-long transformation from Sin City to the more family-friendly desert oasis we have today, the acts who book Vegas residencies tend to be hitmakers whose signature songs are also karaoke faves – not brainy rock outfits who flourish as album artists. But perhaps that’s why Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In the Chips 2 residency at the Venetian – which kicked off Wednesday (April 24) – felt like such a breath of fresh air under the hot Nevada sun.
After the death of Walter Becker in 2017, co-founder Donald Fagen is fully front and center (and he’s a master bandleader, which he nods to by slapping a photo of bandleading GOAT Duke Ellington on his keyboard). As for the rest of the band, much like the rotating cast of studio pros who played on Becker and Fagen’s ’70s albums, the team accompanying Fagen in 2019 is a practically flawless assortment of instrumental pros whose every guitar riff, horn vamp or silky backup vocal brings to mind the original studio version without feeling like a slavish recreation. There’s improvisation, assuredly, but Fagen isn’t reinventing The Dan’s music like Bob Dylan does with his own in concert – you still recognize each song from the first few seconds.
And Fagen’s joy sharing the stage with ace players is palpable. Some players are physically expressive while performing their own bits – and yes, Fagen rolls his head around like Stevie Wonder while tickling his ivories. But he also lets loose when his supporting bandmates are on fire, frequently snapping his mouth like a gleeful turtle when someone gets in a particularly tasty guitar or keyboard solo (and that’s not an insult – turtles are adorable, don’t @ me).
For a band that was always more about LPs than singles, Steely Dan has solid handful of instantly recognizable tunes and another 10 or so that you might not think of all the time but are delightfully rewarding to revisit. Take “FM (No Static At All),” the title track to a completely forgotten 1978 comedy featuring Martin Mull. “This is a song we wrote – I’m talking about my partner Walter Becker – for a movie that was kind of a stinker,” Fagen said before generously reconsidering his shade. “It was okay… could have used a little help on the screenplay.”
As for Becker, Fagen didn’t linger on his late partner with any sort of maudlin montage or speech. But that’s to be expected. Unlike, say, Paul McCartney, whose art is often rooted in sentimentality, Fagen and Becker maintained an ironic edge from day one. Lingering on loss with a heart-on-sleeve moment just isn’t what Steely Dan is about. And really, those concert tribute moments are there for the audience, not the artist, to feel catharsis – and if Fagen doesn’t want to parade his sadness on stage for our benefit every night for the rest of his life, you can’t blame him.
The only thing people did blame him for, however, was that the band’s two Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits were left on the cutting room floor. Despite one man’s vociferous cries of “BACK JACK Do It Again!” after the lights went up, they didn’t return for a second encore with that Vegas-referencing smash in tow (“Ricki Don’t Lose That Number” was another number lost in the mix, which one woman remarked upon walking out). But Steely Dan aren’t a jukebox act – and in a night that saw them trot out unimpugnable classics such as “Reelin’ In the Years,” “Peg,” “My Old School,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Aja” and “Dirty Work” (which gave the two backup singers a chance to demonstrate their full-throated vocal finesse by sharing lead), you really shouldn’t complain.
And most people weren’t. In fact, for a band you don’t really think of as producing dance-oriented music, the cross-generational crowd – yes, it wasn’t just boomers – was shimmying in their seats and shaking asses in the aisles as The Dan flexed its jazz-rock muscles with aplomb and jubilation.
“I hope we’re good — or at least passable,” Fagen told the crowd at one point. Truth is, with Reelin’ In the Chips 2, they bring a rare combination of musical brains and brawn to a city that sorely needs it. The countdown to ecstasy ends when Steely Dan hits the stage.