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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