By David Menconi
DURHAM -- You know those commercials that dramatize what it would be like if roadies ran airlines, or delivery drivers ran schools? Folks, I'm here to tell you: If Steely Dan ran the world, it would be one precise, well-ordered and on-time place.
Tuesday night, Steely Dan opened its "Rent Party" tour at the Durham Performing Arts Center, drawing a high-dollar soldout house. Shockingly, Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen did make one obvious mistake.
"Let's try something from 1975, '76," he said as he rolled into "Aja" -- a song that came out in 1977, actually. But this was opening night, after all, so there was bound to be at least one glitch.
The main event commenced at the stroke of 8:30, as Fagen and Walter Becker entered the stage following seven minutes of instrumental vamping by their eight-piece backup band. Fagen, Becker and three backup singers made it 13-strong onstage, and they blared impressively through a 117-minute, 20-song set.
Steely Dan's arcane paranoia and sense of strangled possibility were very much a product of the 1970s. And yet that aesthetic still translates today. Despite three-plus decades of saturation-level exposure, the group's body of work has held up surprisingly well.
Of course, it helps that Fagen and Becker refuse to let their songs calcify into the familiar versions you've heard on the radio so many times. They took plenty of liberties with their catalog Tuesday night, most notably on a radically changed-up "Reelin' in the Years" that was almost unrecognizable. Even so, "Reelin'" remained as tight as every other song in the Steely Dan canon.
Becker seemed content to stay mostly in the background, playing stinging guitar and only approaching the microphone a couple of times. The one song he sang, "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More," served as a reminder why he doesn't sing more often. But he's still a hell of a guitarist.
His partner Fagen moved between keyboard and melodica, evoking the jaded bemusement that remains Steely Dan's signature. It seems odd to say that someone who has been performing in public for 40 years is coming into his own, and yet it's sort of true for Fagen. At 61, he no longer has an old man's voice trapped in a young man's body -- he is well and truly the grizzled, decadent hepcat he could only imply way back when. It makes a song like "Hey Nineteen" a lot more convincing.
Tuesday's show only laid one egg, with "Godwhacker," which just happened to be the song of most recent vintage (from 2003's "Everything Must Go" album). Everything else was pretty much on the one, from the steady rolling groove of "Time Out of Mind" to the playful angst of "Bad Sneakers."
Other highlights included a lovely "Here at the Western World," the snarling menace of "Josie" and a raucous show-closing "My Old School" with the house lights up. It was fully satisfying, and yet some of their most notable songs went missing: "Do It Again," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Bodhisattva," "FM" and "Any Major Dude Will Tell You."
Guess that means they need to come back.