Steely Dan & Elvis Costello, Classic Rock's Distinguished Gentlemen

Houston Press: Bob Ruggiero: 20th July 2015. Photo's By Violeta Alvarez

For a band that has put out only two studio albums in the past nearly 35 years, Steely Dan (well, actually co-founders Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and a rotating slew of crack studio and stage musicians), have certainly become a pack of road dogs. They have toured consistently over the past two decades, which is fairly ironic as – during their ‘70s heyday – they famously eschewed live gigs after a couple of jaunts very early in their career. They preferred to stay inside and meticulously craft their albums in the studio, thank you very much.

Plus, singer/keyboardist Fagen was reportedly somewhat shy as a performer. He's since well gotten over that, as shown by their recent surprise headlining at the Coachella Festival for an intimate crowed of oh, tens of thousands. Bobbing his head up and down and side to side behind dark sunglasses while lifting his chin to sing, Fagen is looking more and more like his hero Ray Charles with each passing year.

This stop on the 2015 “Rockabye Gollie Angel” tour was by all means, a success as pristine as a sax or guitar solo on The Royal Scam. Mixing a crowd-pleasing, hits-packed set list with just enough deep cuts and musical off-paths to satisfy the hardcore, these sardonic sultans of the ‘70s were crisp and cool.

It probably goes without saying that Fagen and guitarist Becker – who proved both bemused and amusing emcees thoughout the night – have assembled a crack band featuring both newer faces and some who have been with them for years many years: the peerless Jon Herrington on guitar (who does most of the instrument’s heavy lifting), Keith Carlock on drums and the horn players Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone) and Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax). Others onstage included Jim Beard (keyboards), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), and Freddie Washington (bass). The sultry background singers included longtime Dan singer Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle, and Paulette McWilliams.

Highlights included a shimmering “Aja” — to whose opening notes the audience responded with a wave of appreciation — a different tempoed “Show Biz Kids” (with the sarcastic line “They got the Steely Dan T-shirts”), a mind-expanding “Time Out of Mind,” a buoyant “My Old School” and the raucous set closer “Kid Charlemagne.”

As “Dirty Work” was an early hit sung by David Palmer and not Fagen, he turned the vocals over to the backing singers, giving the tune about a boy-toy a vastly different edge. Hardcore fans got the jumpy title track to the 2000 “comeback” album Two Against Nature. And – personally – I was thrilled to hear the cuckholding classic “Gaucho,” which has not been on the band’s regular set list for this tour.

Steely Dan’s music — with its combination of impeccable musical chops coating tales of losers, perverts, drug dealers and addicts, cradle-robbers, the shallow rich, religious zealots, jazzbos, outcasts, weirdos, and gauchos — makes their catalogue, pound for pound, one of classic rock’s richest. And for two hours, Fagen and Becker reeled in the years, peeled back time, and showed that they are anything but a rote nostalgia act. Now, how about a new album, boys?

Opening the show was Elvis Costello & the Imposters, a headliner in his own right, with an hour-long career retrospective that jumped genres, tempos, and vocal timbre. Nattily (but likely sweatily) dressed in a full suit under a riverboat-gambler hat, Costello was backed by long, longtime members (and former Attractions) keyboardist Steve Nieve and Pete Thomas on drums, along with Davey Faragher on bass.

While the general audience certainly responded well to his best-known material like “Every Day I Write the Book,” a frenetic “Pump It Up,” and Nick Lowe cover “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” music nerds (like, um…me) relished the deeper material. There was “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” “Country Darkness” and surprise set-closer “I Want You” – one of Costello's most bitter and devastating love ballads in a catalogue full of them.

An unabashed fan of country music (his 1981 Almost Blue album was entirely of classic country standards), he also dropped in vocally gymnastic covers of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” and Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.” Costello even joked that last time he was in Houston – at Jones Hall – he told the audience there he was impressed that the city would name a venue after George Jones.