‘Absolutely Normal’: Steely Dan makes a triumphant return to Boston

By Charlie McKenna

Donald Fagen, decked out in a blazer and sunglasses, remarked to the raucous crowd of Baby Boomers at Nov. 19’s Steely Dan concert that he and the band were going to play a “carefully curated collection of random shit.”

I, dear reader, sat amongst those boomers, cheering loudly for Fagen and the band after every song, often singing along, much to my girlfriend’s chagrin. The Nov. 19 show marked the second of three Steely Dan concerts held in Boston on its “Absolutely Normal” Tour — the band’s first since the onset of the pandemic. 

For the uninitiated, Steely Dan is a jazz-rock fusion band formed by the aforementioned Fagen and Walter Becker in the early 1970s. The duo met at Bard College, formed a band called “Leather Canary,” and eventually made it big as Steely Dan (the band’s name comes from a mechanized, steam-powered dildo in a William Burroughs novel). 

I’ve seen the band perform six times now — four times at the Orpheum Theatre that played host to the show on Nov. 19. At the show, the Dan (as they are affectionately known) performed 1976’s “The Royal Scam” (a stone-cold classic, if I do say so myself) in its entirety, before transitioning into that aforementioned “collection of random shit.”

That wit is a trademark of the band — and evident throughout “The Royal Scam,” as well as the Friday night performance. The album’s fifth song, entitled “The Fez,” finds the narrator singing that he is “never going to do it without the fez on,” and pleading to not make him “do it without the fez on” because he “wants to be a holy man.” 

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I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to fill in the gaps. But, on the night of the show, instead of Fagen performing the song as he does on the album, he departed the stage and let “the Danettes” — the backup singers — perform a Spanish-language rendition of the song. I have no idea why, but I suspect Fagen, now 73, likely got a kick out of it.

The band surrounding Fagen on this tour is one familiar to fans, comprised of elite musicians from across the country — the inimitable John Herrington leading the way on guitar, Keith Carlock effortlessly conveying the styles of the many elite drummers who joined the band in the 70s, and of course “ready” Freddie Washington on bass. 

When I entered the theater, I darted for the merch table and immediately spent $80 on t-shirts. When in Rome, right? 

The show kicked off with a set from the “Pat Bianchi Trio,” a jazz trio who noodled the night away while the boomers in my vicinity streamed into their seats the largest cans of Truly I’ve ever seen. Once I peeled my eyes away from that I bitterly focused on the performance in front of me.

If improv jazz is your thing, then more power to you, but I detest the Pat Bianchi Trio — having seen their improvisational stylings four times now. It seemed they were there to provide some sonic entertainment as people streamed into their seats — not to be an actual compelling opener.

As the minutes slowly ticked by, and we grew closer to the real show starting, my anticipation grew. When the lights finally dimmed and the band streamed on stage, with Fagen the last to take his place at his signature Rhodes keyboard, I hollered loudly. 

With the show beginning, the Danettes dropped the needle on the on-stage record player, presumably spinning a vinyl of “The Royal Scam.” The show kicked off with the signature opening chords of “Kid Charlemagne” — which might be the most heard Steely Dan song, thanks to its sample on Kanye West’s “Champion” (did you realize you were a champion in their eyes?). 

The band effortlessly sliced its way through “Kid Charlemagne,” and Herrington put his own take on Larry Carlton’s iconic solos, while also remaining faithful to the source material. “Caves of Altamira” remains one of the best tracks in the Dan’s catalog and it’s a shame they refuse to trot it out more often (I blame the boomers, who only want the band to play the hits). 

I won’t bore you, dear reader, by going through each and every song on “The Royal Scam,” but just know — they all slap. There’s an iconic moment in the album’s penultimate song “Everything You Did” where Fagen croons “turn up the eagles the neighbors are listening” — a response to the “stab it with their steely knives” in “Hotel California.” I suspect the moment may have been lost on the boomers in the crowd, but I made sure to point it out to my girlfriend who probably rolled her eyes just a little bit internally. 

The album concludes with the title track, and the ominous, looming chords embedded in the song’s melody played so well live. It’s long been a favorite on the album and has been even better each time I’ve seen the band play it for an audience. 

Fagen navigated the album well, even despite a few lyrical slip-ups. His voice sounded closer to the recordings than I have ever heard. The man is 73, so it’s difficult to expect his voice not to have aged at all, but a year and a half of not touring probably did his vocal cords well. 

Then, as the band moved into its “carefully curated collection of random shit,” the more traditional hits were played—with songs like “Hey Nineteen” (a yacht rock staple) and “Bodhisattva” comprising the rest of the evening’s setlist.

There was one fun surprise in the band trotting out 2003’s “Godwhacker,” which was the best song on its final album “Everything Must Go.” It’s one I had never seen played live and was tremendously fun to hear because of its rarity. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Steely Dan show if Fagen didn’t break out his melodica and toot along to one of the tunes, providing a somewhat unnecessary (albeit fun) accompaniment to Aja’s iconic solos. 

The show concluded with a rendition of the band’s most popular song “Reelin’ in the Years,” a song Fagen once dubbed “dumb but effective,” that absolutely blew the audience away. With Herrington and relative newcomer Connor Kennedy trading licks, it felt like the vibe had shifted away from smooth jazz to full-blown rock & roll. The boomers had not felt excitement like this in years. 

The tour may have been “absolutely normal,” but the show was anything but.