Audio engineers the world over often use Steely Dan recordings to tune PA systems before concerts; they are sonically pristine and musically complex. On Thursday, in the wake of Prince’s death, his songs reportedly bumped Steely Dan from the sound checks at various stages at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
No matter: On Friday evening, the actual Steely Dan ended up rendering its own songs sonically pristine and musically complex at the Acura Stage. They were essentially their own sound check. Listeners who closed their eyes during “Black Friday” may have thought they were hearing a recording.
Keyboardist, vocalist and bandleader Donald Fagen is one of rock’s great curmudgeons. It was impossible to tell whether his prevailing expression, amidst various facial contortions, was a grimace or smile. Regardless, his clenched whisper of a voice was spot-on. He invited the audience to take in the “great tunes. We hope you sit back, relax and groove.”
Duly noted. His longtime partner, guitarist Walter Becker, was the Dan’s resident loose cannon. During “Hey Nineteen,” he embarked on a long, far-out monologue that cited the “organizers of the festival” and “organizers all over the world. You know who I’m talking about.”
He, too, referenced his band’s “groovy music.” Speaking of the music -- or was he talking about tequila? -- he promised it would “go down smooth and then explode in your stomach like an atomic bomb.”
That may have been giving the ultra-polished collective a bit too much credit. But they are a formidable unit, ace players, one and all.
Bassist Freddie Washington dug in deeply during “Josie,” carving out a fat groove. Guitarist Jon Herington was especially impressive as he re-created complex, jazz-informed solos first laid down in the 1970s, spiked with his own flourishes. His lyrical take on “Peg” set the standard for the set, until he jumped all over the monster solo that marked a playful “My Old School.” His excursion during “Reelin’ in the Years” veered into Mark Knopfler territory.
Collectively, the ensemble bore down during the double-time latter section of “Bodhisattva.” They could make a racket when necessary.
As the 7 p.m. quitting time approached, Fagen declared they would dispense with the “b-------” routine of stepping offstage briefly before returning for a preordained encore. “It’s too much f------- trouble,” he grumbled.
Instead, they plunged into “Kid Charlemagne.” Michael McDonald, who recorded and toured with Steely Dan in the 1970s and at various points in the past decade, had preceded his old bandmates on the Acura Stage. Fagen called out “Mike” McDonald to lend his soulful baritone to “Pretzel Logic.”
When it crashed to a close, the musicians quit the stage abruptly, without any sort of feel-good goodbye. It was an awkward ending to a set that, like the first day of Jazz Fest as a whole, went especially smoothly.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.