Steely Dan occupies a special musical niche where rock, pop and jazz seamlessly converge, where flawless musicianship is not sterile, where lyrics can be cerebral and sardonic without being off-putting.
Their studio creations sold in the millions in the 1970s and early '80s, and as heard at the Santa Barbara Bowl stop of their Mood Swings 2013 tour Tuesday night, these sonic gems translated nicely to the live stage in somewhat jazzier arrangements.
The core of the band is still the duo Donald Fagen (lead vocals, Fender Rhodes piano, a bit of melodica) and Walter Becker (guitar, rare vocals). They were joined by an accomplished group of musicians dubbed The Bipolar Allstars, namely Jon Herington (bandleader, guitar), Jim Beard (keyboards), Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums), Michael Leonhart, Walt Weiskopf, Roger Rosenberg and Jim Pugh (horns), almost all of whom played tasty solos throughout the evening.
There were also three lovely background vocalists dubbed The Borderline Brats, namely La Tanya Hall, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Catherine Russell.
An early concert highlight was the band's 1980 hit "Hey Nineteen" from the album Gaucho, during which Becker had a long monologue in which he joked about audience members buying tickets to the show instead of spending their money on an "eight ball" of cocaine, then the same audience members after the show digging out marijuana ("cheeva cheeva") stored in a box from an old Renaissance Faire and downing shots of a mysterious liquor made in Mexico.
Other popular songs during the first half of the show were "Black Friday" and "Bodhisattva," the latter with a smokin' guitar solo by Herington.
As much as can be hoped for with such a chillaxed vibe, things took off starting with "Josie," for which the audience finally ignored Fagen's early suggestion to "sit back, relax and enjoy the music," with the front section crowd even "rushing" the stage to be closer to the mellow groove masters.
As the full moon rose above the stage, this was followed by the beloved songs "Peg," "My Old School" and their early hit "Reelin' in the Years."
For an encore, the band played my favorite Steely Dan tune, "Kid Charlemagne," a tribute to "The King of Acid" Owsley Stanley. That's still some sweet stuff.
While the music was certainly enjoyable, the crowd at times could've used a (polite) slap in the face. OK, at least they weren't holding up their phones the whole night to record videos like a younger crowd might have done, but they were surprisingly chatty during the songs. If you're gonna fork over the dough, don't you at least want to listen to the music, man?
But, alas, even a chatty audience couldn't spoil the magic of Steely Dan on a summer's eve in Santa Barbara.
Blueport (Gerry Mulligan cover, played by The Bipolar Allstars)
Your Gold Teeth
Show Biz Kids
I Got the News
Out of Mind
Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More (sung by Walter Becker)
Razor Boy (sung by The Borderline Brats)
I Want To (Do Everything for You) (Joe Tex cover)
My Old School
Reelin' in the Years
Untouchables Theme (played by The Bipolar Allstars)
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.