Boston Herald: Bill Brotherton: 31st July 2015. Photo By Rachael Naomi.
For years, Steely Dan refused to tour. Perfectionists Donald Fagen and Walter Becker didn't believe they could replicate the studio sound on stage, so they were content to stay home and release one masterful, magical album after another. But now, thanks to modern technology, they're on the road every year, these eccentric uncles whose annual two-hour visits are highly anticipated and welcomed.
How ironic, then, that a lousy sound mix nearly derailed the Dan's show Thursday night at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. At the start, Fagen's vocals and piano could barely be heard, but about five songs in, when the duo and their 11-piece band kicked into "Black Friday," things improved and continued to get better bit by bit throughout the night.
Last fall at this same venue, Becker, Fagen and crew were white hot, as good as I've ever seen them. Fagen was chatty and deliciously sarcastic; last night he was much more reserved.
This was basically the same show fans saw last fall. Becker delivered the same gonzo raps and band introductions as he did a year ago. The backing singers and band wowed with a cover of Joe Tex's funky, soulful "I Want To (Do Everything For You)" then and now. The four horn players dutifully stepped out front to deliver their solos. The setlist was pretty much identical to that of a year ago: "Dirty Work" replaced "Razor Boy," "The Boston Rag" subbed for "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "Babylon Sisters" was jettisoned.
The Dan opened with crowd-pleasers -- heck, their entire catalog is made up of crowd-pleasers -- "Black Cow," "Aja" and "Hey Nineteen," with the line "sweet things from Boston" earning loud cheers.
Fans in Steely Dan T-shirts danced and sang along to "Show Biz Kids," an uptempo treat fueled by Walt Weiskopf's sax and stinging guitar leads by both Becker and Jon Herington. "Bodhisattva" and "Green Earrings" kept the good times rolling. The crowd stood and bopped to the closing quartet of "Josie," horns-driven blast "Peg," "My Old School" and "Reelin' in the Years," with the rhythm section mastering the stop-and-start rhythms and Herington's just-like-the-record guitar solo.
Elvis Costello was the unlikely opener. Backed by his rock-and-roll band the Imposters, Costello dug way back into his catalog, focusing on tunes from his classic late '70s/early '80s albums. He started with speeding-out-of-control versions of "I Hope You're Happy Now," "High Fidelity," "Radio Radio" and "Watching the Detectives."
Costello, who received an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee College of Music in 2013 (as did Fagen and Becker earlier), on this hot, humid night was dressed in a black suit with a Panama Jack hat atop his 60-year-old head. His fashion choice might have been dubious, but his song selection during his hourlong set was impeccable.
"Alison" evolved into a loud sing-along. "Everyday I Write the Book" was a funky, R&B-flavored treat. Like Dylan, Costello is not averse to reworking some songs: "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" got a winning reggae/hip-hop Red Hot Chili Peppers-like makeover. The intense, menacing psychotic fever dream of obsessive love "I Want You" was a deep cut that thrilled true fans. "Pump it Up" and his cover of Nick Lowe's "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding" ended the set on a rocking note.