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September 20, 2018

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Photos: Steely Dan as hot as it gets, reels in the years at Pearl at the Palms


Denise Truscello / WireImage /

Steely Dan at Pearl at the Palms on Saturday, April 11, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Steely Dan at Pearl at the Palms

Steely Dan at Pearl at the Palms on Saturday, April 11, 2015, in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Common wisdom has it that Steely Dan is just Walter Becker and Donald Fagen with an anonymous, rotating cast of backing musicians. True, Steely Dan has not been a ‟band” in the formal sense since around 1974 when Becker and Fagen stopped touring and gradually replaced the original lineup — the one with ‟Do It Again” and ‟Reelin’ in the Years” to its credit — with ace session players.

But the 11 musicians and singers backing Becker and Fagen on Saturday night at Pearl at the Palms were hardly anonymous. This band is as hot as it gets, with not a weak link among them.

Kicking things off with the one-two of ‟Black Cow” and ‟Aja,” it seemed as if the Dan, perhaps rejuvenated by appearances at Coachella this weekend and next, was going to bestow a full performance of the classic ‟Aja” album on the sold-out crowd. It didn’t happen, but it didn’t matter. The night was full of more than enough hits, solos and spaced-out banter to compensate.

About that banter, let’s get it out there: Walter Becker is the drunk uncle you never knew you wanted. Except he’s sober, as he explained during an extended break in ‟Hey Nineteen.” Now, he just riffs about smoking ‟Amsterdam spacecones” and imagines a night in which the Cuervo Gold works a little too well: ‟You’re on the rooftop of a condo. How did you get there? I don’t know!”

Later on, introducing the band, he reacts to solos like he’s eating soup and likes what he tastes. Mmm, Freddie Washington on bass. Hey, is this coriander? Let’s let these guys — often regarded as dour, perfectionist recluses — have a little fun, shall we?

Once the set gets going, the pace quickens, the band tightens. ‟Show Biz Kids” is almost unrecognizable to start but ends up an improvement on the studio version, funkier and more direct. The line about ‟show business kids making movies of themselves” takes on new meaning in light of the festival this weekend. Are you listening, Kendall Jenner?

‟Dirty Work” gives backup singers Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle and La Tanya Hall a chance to step into Fagen’s role, and they do, ably. The 1972 hit kinda sounds like a slow jam now. We like it.

Next, a sprint through ‟Bodhisattva” puts guitarist Jon Herington through the ringer. He comes out unscathed. Guitar is perhaps the most critical instrument in the Dan lineup; there are just so many memorable parts, and you have to at least nod to Elliott Randall or Larry Carlton before going off and doing your own thing. But Herington’s a machine — faithful to the original parts when he needs to be and relentlessly creative when given the chance to step outside.

And how about Keith Carlock? The Dan’s drummer of 12 years uses traditional grip (marching band-style for the uninitiated) and wears every snare hit on his face but emerges an MVP candidate for his epic work on ‟Aja.” He tackles Steve Gadd’s original fills like Fagen took his car keys and won’t let him go home. Good thing they moved saxophonist Walt Weiskopf out front for his Wayne Shorter-inspired solo — it would’ve been a toss-up on whom to keep your eyes focused.

For bonus reading, check out Fagen’s continuing Coachella blog for Rolling Stone. It’s hilariously cranky in the vein of his 2013 memoir ‟Eminent Hipsters.”

Saturday night’s setlist: ‟Cubano Chant” (Ray Bryant cover), ‟Black Cow,” ‟Aja,” ‟Hey Nineteen,” ‟Black Friday,” ‟Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” ‟Show Biz Kids,” ‟Time Out of Mind,” ‟Godwhacker,” ‟Dirty Work,” ‟Bodhisattva,” ‟Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” ‟FM (No Static at All)” ‟I Want To (Do Everything for You)” (Joe Tex cover), ‟Peg,” ‟My Old School” and ‟Reelin’ in the Years.” Encore: ‟Kid Charlemagne” and ‟Theme From ‛The Untouchables’ ” (Nelson Riddle cover).

Jack Houston is the editor of Las Vegas Magazine, a sister publication of the Las Vegas Sun. Don’t lose his number. Or whatever.

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