Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker passed away on September 3rd, just a month after playing his final concert with the band he founded with Donald Fagen in 1971. With dates already booked for Steely Dan to return to the road in October, Fagen decided that the show would go on, concluding a statement on his bandmate’s death with “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.”
On Tuesday (Oct. 24), Fagen took the stage at Pier Six Pavilion on the Baltimore harbor, for the eighth show in his new role as the sole survivor of Steely Dan’s core duo. But he wasn’t exactly alone: Fagen is just one of 12 musicians in the ensemble, which includes a 4-piece horn section and a trio of backing singers known as “The Danettes.” The band warmed up for a few minutes with ‘50s jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s “Fan It, Janet” before Fagen led them into the smooth groove of “Black Cow” that opens Steely Dan’s most beloved album, 1977’s Aja.
Fagen, 69, has always hunched over the keyboard with much of the posture and mannerisms of one of his idols, Ray Charles. And the older he gets, the more he outright resembles a white Ray Charles from a distance, flanked by The Danettes much as Charles was flanked by his Raylettes. But during Aja’s epic title track, he stood up and took center stage to play a melodica for the first of several times over the course of the night, blowing on the tiny reed organ — and for a moment becoming an unofficial member of the horn section.
Fagen was always a reluctant frontman; he shared lead vocals on the band’s 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill with David Palmer before becoming Steely Dan’s fulltime lead singer, and even today, he delegates Palmer’s most famous vocal, “Dirty Work,” to the Danettes. In the band’s later years, Becker became Steely Dan’s mouthpiece between songs, introducing soloists and offering the occasional gregarious monologue.
Fagen’s icier patter has its own charm, though. He worked Baltimore into his customary spoken asides at the end of “Hey Nineteen,” and later, when the band went quiet long enough for fans to start shouting requests, he smiled and retorted, “Luckily, I can’t distinguish anything you’re saying…We’re just gonna play the set list.”
The droll humor that defined Steely Dan’s songs is potentially at odds with an occasion as bittersweet as the band’s first tour without a key member. Fagen referred a couple times to “my partner Walter Becker,” without explicitly acknowledging why he wasn’t right there across the stage as usual. And midway through the show, he sang “Book of Liars,” a song from Becker’s 1994 solo album 11 Tracks of Whack that had long been a Steely Dan live staple, while dozens of photos of Becker played on a screen behind the band. After wrapping up the song, Fagen remembered a tourdate in Japan where the band’s set lists had been printed with the song’s title mistranslated to “Box of Leers.”
Steely Dan stayed off the road for most of their ‘70s heyday, perfecting their signature push and pull between jazz musician and pop songcraft in the studios. But since Fagen and Becker reunited in the ‘90s, Steely Dan has figured out how to strike that same balance onstage, managing to be both a classic rock nostalgia act that plays its Billboard Hot 100 hits, but also an ensemble of expert musicians putting their own spin on the material from night to night. Hearing drummer Keith Carlock put his own spin on the solo from an album track like “Aja” is as much a draw as the swooning chorus of “Hey Nineteen.”
Jon Herington, a regular of Steely Dan’s albums and tours since the band reformed in the ‘90s, is now the only guitarist in a band that has historically employed two or three guitars onstage. Herington has one of the most challenging tasks a touring musician could ask for: doing justice to iconic solos that Fagen and Becker pulled out of session musicians over the course of dozens of takes, from Jay Graydon’s sly “Peg” solo to Elliott Randall’s showboating “Reelin’ In The Years” solo. Herington handled them all with aplomb, but his finest moment was his take on Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” solo, hitting all the same high notes but subtly pulling them just ahead or just behind the beat.
Aside from “Book of Liars” and “New Frontier,” the latter the most propulsive track from Fagen’s 1982 solo debut The Nightfly, Steely Dan stuck to the most reliable favorites from its early albums, eschewing songs from the band’s two 21st century LPs, which had peppered the band’s set lists as recently as 2016. But while Donald Fagen gave the audience the music they grew up with, he shared a little of the music he grew up with, vamping Joe Tex’s 1965 soul hit “I Want To (Do Everything For You)” for band introductions, and leaving the stage while the band played Nelson Riddle’s theme song for the ‘50s TV series The Untouchables.