When Walter Becker died of cancer in September of 2017, Donald Fagen vowed to keep the music of Steely Dan alive by touring as much as possible. Tuesday night, September 24, at the Santa Barbara Bowl, Fagen more than lived up to his promise with a dazzling set of classic material played by one of the best Steely Dan lineups ever. There was even a late-evening surprise guest appearance by another rock legend, David Crosby, who helped out with harmonies on “Home at Last” and then rallied for the encore by grabbing a guitar and trading rhythmic riffs with band members Jon Herington and Connor Kennedy on “Reelin’ in the Years.”
Steely Dan may still be reeling from the loss of Becker, but the years have nevertheless been kind to their oeuvre. Few groups of their vintage sound as fresh or authoritative today. The lyrical brilliance and timeless musical sophistication of these songs grow more impressive with every passing decade. In person, the group offers an experience that’s far richer and more satisfying than simple nostalgia can possibly explain.
Highlights on Tuesday night included a stirring “Bad Sneakers,” an incisive “Kid Charlemagne,” and an irresistible set closer of “My Old School.” Fagen sang with power and passion, and the group balanced perfectly between fidelity to the recorded originals and jazzy improvisation. Steely Dan famously sat out the ’70s and ’80s by declining to play live when they had their biggest hits, but the group is making up for lost time in the new century, and for this resurrection we should be grateful.