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Steely Dan Mix Jazz And R&B With Hits On Summer Tour

Veteran eclectic rock duo lead 13-piece band through a career overview.

HOLMDEL, N.J. — PNC Bank Arts Center is a large amphitheater that caters to pop stars, but veteran eclectic rockers Steely Dan brought, along with their hit songs, the kind of jazz-oriented rhythm and blues usually heard in smoky clubs to the venue on Friday.

Midway through a North American tour, singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen and lead/rhythm guitarist Walter Becker put on a confident, polished show more than two hours long, opening with the obscure "Boston Rag" (RealAudio excerpt), from 1973's Countdown to Ecstasy.

Though the duo had a string of hit albums throughout the '70s, they stopped touring early in the decade when other original members left the band. The two began live shows again in the mid-'90s and released Two Against Nature, their first studio LP since 1980's Gaucho, earlier this year.

Fagen, sporting a black leather jacket and large glasses, strolled unassumingly onto the stage just before nightfall, as if he were entering his own living room. With a tap on his Fender Rhodes, he began leading the 13-piece band that he and Becker assembled.

Getting Down In The Garden State

Since Becker and Fagen spent their early years in New Jersey, they made references to the Garden State throughout the show. "It's great to be here in New Jersey on this beautiful evening; [it's] just a perfect time for getting down," Fagen said from the stage.

Becker, with a shorter, more clean-cut haircut than usual, stood to his partner's right. He alternated lead and rhythm guitar with John Harrington, who shone during a solo of "Black Friday." Though he never handled lead vocals on Steely Dan albums, Becker sang "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More," from Katy Lied, and "Monkey in Your Soul" (RealAudio excerpt), from Pretzel Logic. Becker is not an exciting singer, but his laid-back vocals added new twists to the songs' syncopated rhythms.

Drummer Ricky Lawson, pianist Ted Baker, three female backup singers — who sang lead on "Dirty Work" — and the four-piece brass section, which included former Doobie Brothers member Cornelius Bumpus, was given time for lengthy solos that sometimes broke the momentum of the concert.

But the '70s-style green, purple and red lights were mostly focused on Fagen. With his Freddie Mercury overbite and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, Fagen is not the typical pretty-boy rock frontman. Nevertheless, his frequent grunting and twisted grins are very appropriate for the mildly salacious lyrics of such new songs as "Cousin Dupree" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Janie Runaway."

"That was a really particularly promiscuous version of 'Cousin Dupree,' at the very least," Fagen said after the song, which contains lyrics such as "When I see my little cousin Janine walk in/ All I could say was 'ow-ow-ouch.' ... Well, we used to play when we were 3/ How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree?"

The duo repeatedly introduced tunes with variations on "now we're gonna go back and reach into the late '70s" as they flitted through their catalog.

One For The Baby Boomers

Steely Dan ended the first set with the hit "Hey Nineteen," during which Fagen substituted Otis Redding for the key Aretha Franklin lyric. "Hey nineteen, that's Otis Redding/ She don't remember the king of soul." The line "She thinks I'm crazy, but I'm just growing old" drew loud cheers from the mostly baby boomer crowd.

The rollicking "Deacon Blues" and "Peg," two favorites from Aja, were highlights of the second set, which was brought to an explosive close with the aggressive "Don't Take Me Alive" (RealAudio excerpt). The track, from The Royal Scam, was performed with pulsating, multicolored lights aimed at the crowd.

A lengthy standing ovation brought the band out for crowd sing-alongs to "My Old School" and "FM."

"I was told that they were bad in concert, that they were purely studio musicians," Barbara Conte, a New Jersey resident, said. "But they were incredible. You don't even need good seats, [because] you come mostly to listen."

"Even with 13 musicians they sounded crisp," Matthew Budman of Highland Park, N.J., said. "But the $75-plus ticket prices are a royal scam."