Steely Dan keeps reelin’ in the fans.
Thursday’s concert at Starlight Theatre was the fourth time in less than five years that the duo and its band had performed in Kansas City. Three of those shows were at Starlight. The other was at the Midland theater, in September 2013.
Despite its frequent appearances, Steely Dan remains a big draw. A crowd of more than 7,000 showed up Thursday to hear a set list that didn’t differ substantially from previous shows’, but any repeat attendees got something new.
The difference this time was the fervor and enthusiasm delivered by founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and their outstanding 11-piece orchestra. The three previous performances were satisfying, but, in comparison, each lacked the vigor and verve of this show, which crackled with more energy and suffered fewer, if any, by-the-numbers moments.
The set list was built for diehards and casual fans. After part of the band performed the instrumental “November Afternoon,” Fagen, Becker and the rest of the band strolled on stage and glided into “Black Cow,” from the legendary “Aja” album, which received the most attention this evening.
From there, they bombarded the big crowd with favorites: “Aja,” “Hey Nineteen” and the irresistible rock/funk/jazz salvo “Black Friday,” all of which ignited sing-alongs and the kind of dancing-in-the-aisles you see at an Earth Wind & Fire concert.
Steely Dan is about as unique as a band can get. They imported jazz into the mainstream and Top 40 radio, but only after letting it get all cozy and conjugal with funk, soul, rock and pop. Their song structures are complicated and their chord progressions are sophisticated, even thrilling at times, yet they manage to sustain melodies and grooves that are accessible and mainstream enough to have inhabited berths on the Top 40 charts 10 times. Fagen and Becker are worthy of mention among the best songwriters in American music, but they don’t seem to get it as much as they deserve it.
They brought with them an ensemble that Becker called “the best band we ever had,” which is almost an understatement. The rhythm section of Keith Carlock (drums) and Freddie Washington (bass) was other-worldly. Becker called Carlock something like “top of the world class,” which seemed accurate.
The four horn players were equally exceptional; so were the three background singers. And several times, guitarist Jon Herington and Becker exchanged scintillating leads, most notably during “Hey Nineteen” and the signature interlude during “Reelin’ in the Years.” Fagen’s voice was strong all night and he was his usual master of the keyboards. On a few songs, including “Aja,” he played the melodica.
Like all memorable shows, this one felt like one long highlight. They dropped in a couple of songs for the diehards, like “Your Gold Teeth” and “Razor Boy,” from Countdown to Ecstasy,” and a cover of Joe Tex’s “I Want To (Do Everything for You),” which served as a platform for the band introductions — everyone got a few moments of spotlight.
But the rest of the show was devoted to some of the most urbane and accomplished pop music — musically, instrumentally and lyrically — from over the past 50 years. Songs like “FM,” “Josie,” “Peg” and the vastly unappreciated “My Old School” — a song that elicits the same joyous reaction as Bruce Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” to which it bears a resemblance — sent the crowd into a dancing/singing-along frenzy.
They closed with “Pretzel Logic,” another for the diehards, but the real finale was what preceded it: “Reelin’ in the Years,” a song that fuses melody, attitude, intelligence and groove and all the other virtues of a classic pop song. Steely Dan played it the three previous times they were in Kansas City, but I don’t remember it sounding so liberating or unfurled and enthusiastic. Chalk it up to a great band and orchestra being in the perfect mood to deliver some of the most enduring songs in American popular music over the past 50 years.
Steve Winwood: He opened the show with a stellar set, one that deserved more time. He and his band, which included a drummer, a percussionist and a multi-instrumentalist (flute, saxophone, keyboards) performed songs from across Winwood’s discography, including “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’,” two Spencer Davis Group songs, and “Pearly Queen” and “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” two Traffic songs. Winwood’s voice was in good form, especially during “Higher Love,” which aroused the loudest ovation of his set.
Steely Dan: November Afternoon; Black Cow; Aja; Hey Nineteen; Black Friday; Your Gold Teeth; Kid Charlemagne; Time Out of Mind; Razor Boy; Bodhisattva; Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More; FM; I Want To (Do Everything for You); Josie; Peg; My Old School; Reelin’ in the Years; Pretzel Logic; The Untouchables.
Steve Winwood: I’m a Man; Pearly Queen; At Times We Do Forget; Them Changes; Low Spark of High Heeled Boys; Higher Love; Dear Mr. Fantasy; Gimme Some Lovin’.