It's funny the way reunion shows work. As curious as we might be to see how our old favorites have changed over the years, it's always vaguely disappointing to hear a familiar tune done differently. Because even if that change is ultimately for the better, the fact that the new version has to fight its way past layers of memory to get a fair hearing means most of us will end up enjoying it less than the original.
So it was hard to walk away from Steely Dan's reunion-tour
performance at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Saturday without some degree of mixed feelings. Sure, it was great to see Donald Fagen and Walter Becker back together as the Dan for the first time in a dozen years, particularly since the last tour the group mounted was in 1974; it was even better to hear the duo and their "Steely Dan Big Band" roar through the likes of "Deacon Blue," "My Old School," "Chain Lightning" and "Peg."
But was it everything a fan could have wanted?
Not really. For one thing, Fagen's vocals were too weak to claim the prominence they enjoy on album, and that greatly diminished the melodic charm of "Bodhisattva" and "Babylon Sisters." (Still, after hearing Becker growl tunelessly through two songs of his own, it's easy to understand how Fagen got the job.)
For another, the jazzy cast given the music by this version of Steely Dan didn't really fit every selection, as the hopelessly confused rendition of "Reelin' in the Years" made plain.
Still, when things did click, the Dan Big Band was awesome to behold.
"Black Friday," for example, simmered deliciously through its first verse before the drummer Peter Erskine dramatically upped the heat, bringing the song to full boil in a matter of measures; likewise, it was thrilling to hear fleet-fingered guitarist Drew Zingg soaring effortlessly over the rhythmic juggernaut at the end of "My Old School."
For sheer instrumental fire, though, it would be hard to top "Countermoon" and "Tea House on the Tracks," two Fagen songs stitched together by a string of brilliant solos, including a wry, Horace Silver-ish stretch by pianist Warren Bernhardt, and drivingly rhythmic, harmonically imaginative improvisation by vibraphonist Bill Ware.