Near the end of Steely Dan’s two-hour set at the Idaho Botanical Garden, singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen finally acknowledged what most of the 3,579 fans already knew: That he and musical partner Walter Becker had never performed in Boise during their four-decade career.
“We might have been here in the ’70s,” Fagen mused, “but I wouldn’t remember that.”
He may or may not have been fibbing. Judging from the funky jazz-fusion keyboard sound he concocted moments later during “Kid Charlemagne,” his connection to that era remains vivid.
What stood out Sunday at Outlaw Field is how well Steely Dan’s songs — not to mention its two core members — have stood the test of time. This is sophisticated, cosmopolitan studio rock that can seem cold in its perfection and overplayed in its pervasiveness. Can you visit a dentist’s office without hearing Steely Dan? But energized by a dozen crack musicians, FM radio standards such as “Black Friday” took on an organic new life. And as eccentric as Fagen’s mind may be — he hears chord progressions that the rest of us just don’t — this was hifalutin party music in concert.
It didn’t hurt that the mild, overcast weather was essentially perfect. On this magical evening beneath Boise’s gorgeous Foothills, the typical fan was a festive, white-goateed dude holding an IPA in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other.
Steely Dan seemed inspired by the setting. After a short, unremarkable opening set from bluesy instrumental act Deep Blue Organ Trio, the group got down to business with a one-two punch of “Your Gold Teeth” and “Aja.” Fagen and Becker have a reputation for employing top-notch musicians, and this was not going to be an exception. Drummer Keith Carlock was lethal — his hands a blur of precision and power. The baritone sax player, Roger Rosenberg, had a terrific tone. The soulful female back-up singers were flawless. When Becker gave his own ax skills a rest, the band’s lead guitarist, Jon Herington, unleashed refined, sinewy solos.
Wearing dark glasses and a red shirt, Fagen dominated the stage. Raising his hands face high, he pounded notes dramatically. Age has not affected his icy-smooth vocals noticeably — just his slouch. The only time his 65 years were apparent was when he stood to uncork a melodica solo.
Becker’s humorous, rambling introduction to “Hey Nineteen” went on 30 seconds too long — one rude concertgoer even hollered “Play music!” And his vocals on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” were a buzz kill, if not a borderline train wreck. But it almost felt like the band was playing with the audience. The group reloaded effortlessly, thanks to that wicked drummer propelling “Bodhisattva.” As if the rock gods were crying tears of joy, two or three drops of rain fell as Steely Dan tore into overdrive late in the show with a relentless barrage of fan favorites: “Josie,” “Peg” and “My Old School.”
Amazingly, it took until the concert was nearly over for the majority of the audience to stand: “Reelin’ in the Years” did the trick, fueled by that signature guitar solo with the wonderfully raunchy personality.
Reelin’ — that sort of describes the feeling for fans who’d waited 40-plus years to see this band. The best part? This obviously is not an “old man act.” Steely Dan remains virile and exciting, which means that its first Boise performance very well might not be its last. Please, gentlemen, do it again.