The best live shows are emotional journeys, escapes from reality into realms transcendent and nostalgic. Tuesday night, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen took a full house at the Midland theater on a two-hour excursion into various environments, some obscure, others familiar and beloved.
As the duo known as Steely Dan took the stage, it was serenaded by its 11-piece band, which played the jazz instrumental “Blueport.” Then came the first of many Steely Dan tunes: the uptown-jazz/rock number “Your Gold Teeth” from the “Countdown to Ecstasy” album, now 40 years old.
It launched a night that included several ecstatic moments. One of those came right away: the title track to the album “Aja” followed by “Hey, Nineteen,” which included a slick solo by trombonist Jim Pugh.
Fagen and Becker are in their mid-60s, and though the years have taken their tolls (especially on Fagen’s voice, which has become charmingly weathered), the two perform with plenty of vigor and attitude, applying several doses of self-effacement and dry wit.
Fagen knocked the duo’s longevity at one point, suggesting that one of their albums was issued about 100 years ago. They also repeatedly gave Kansas City praise for its music heritage.
Their airtight band was a collection of aces and ringers, especially drummer Keith Carlock and guitarist Jon Herington, who deftly re-created many of the signature solos and leads, as in “Bodhisattva,” one of many highlights, and “Reelin’ in the Years.” The set was filled with solos, but none was ponderous or self-indulgent. Even Carlock’s splashy drum solo was brief.
The set list shifted from crowd favorites like “Black Friday” and “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” to lesser-known tracks like “Green Earrings” and “Godwhacker,” which caused one of the few lulls in the show. Becker’s monologue during “Hey, Nineteen” also took some of the steam out of that number.
Mostly it was Fagen’s show, whether he was singing from behind his Fender Rhodes or out in front, blowing into his melodica. The backup singers were given the spotlight a few times, including during “Razor Boy,” when they took the lead vocal.
They ended with a flourish of hits and favorites that brought much of the crowd of 2,500 out of their seats, starting with “Josie” and then “Peg.” The sing-along to “My Old School” was upstaged only by the uproarious sing-along to “Reelin’ In the Years.”
The ending was almost anti-climactic: “Kid Charlemagne” followed by another instrumental as the lights went on and Fagen and Becker left the stage. The ship had landed, the odyssey was over and it was back to Earth and the business of living.
Blueport; Your Gold Teeth; Aja; Hey Nineteen; Show Biz Kids; Green Earrings; Black Friday; Time Out of Mind; Godwhacker; Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More; Bodhisattva; Razor Boy; Home at Last; I Want To (Do Everything for You); Josie; Peg; My Old School; Reelin’ In the Years.Encore: Kid Charlemagne; Untouchables Theme.