Mostly Not

Donald Fagen

At the Arlington Theatre, Thursday, March 30.

Reviewed by Russ Spencer

When the curtain came up March 30 at the Arlington Theatre, Donald Fagen appeared, in all black, and ambled to center stage, seating himself behind a keyboard. He stayed there for the remainder of his no-nonsense show, working through material from his three solo albums and nailing a few Steely Dan nuggets that matched the evening’s vibe, which might be described as the Cult of Chops.

Chops with one all-important added ingredient: great pork. Pork, as in meat. There are a lot of cerebral guitar noodlers in this world. Two of them were onstage at the Arlington that night — Wayne Krantz and Jon Herington, guys with excellent personal hygiene who know their scales really well and whose feet don’t move as they play. Fagen’s two horn players fit into that category as well. But as has always been one of his great gifts, Fagen balanced the noodling with the grooving. On the other side of the stage, the rhythm section, drummer Keith Carlock and bass guitarist Freddie Washington nailed unusual, gutsy beats. To that, add two sexy backup singers. Fagen in the middle, controlling the scales. The audience experienced a rare sonic melding of the yin and yang, the sacred and the profane, the train and the tunnel.

Fagen and The Dan played at the Santa Barbara Bowl two years ago, and that show was a celebration of their priceless jazz/pop invention, the recognition of a band that created a unique musical form. This show, in support of Fagen’s new album Morph the Cat, was more like a good jam. Fagen talked little, except to encourage the audience to bear with his jazz leanings: “See, it didn’t kill you!” He seemed most energized when paying tribute to his disparate idols: “What I Do,” his deep-soul conversation with the ghost of Ray Charles (Fagen seemed to channel Charles’s idiosynchratic performance movements through much of the show), “Misery and the Blues,” a Jack Teagarden tribute, and Chuck Berry’s “Viva Rock and Roll.”

The concert lasted just 90 minutes, and although there were Fagenheads who gave standing ovations after each and every song, I heard a lot of grumbling about the length of the show and the lack of Steely Dan material. When an artist of Fagen’s strength has pop culture success, this is always a danger. The audience gets mixed messages. Is this Pop, or Not? Fagen’s genius is his ability to do both, often in the same song, but on this night, for better or for worse, it was mostly Not.

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