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November 26, 2014

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No spandex, no problem for Steely Dan at Pearl Theater

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Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

Donald Fagen belting it out at The Pearl Concert Theater in the Palms.

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Walter Becker, fully immersed.

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Steely Dan's braintrust: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

Oh, to be as precise as Don Fagen and Walter Becker, the masterminds behind Steely Dan. It’s amazing these gentlemen share space with such high-volume, freewheeling acts as The Rolling Stones and Ramones in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’re rockers only to fill a category, their swirling jazz melodies fairly hypnotizing their audience (and even themselves, it seems). They’re scholarly, professorial, looking more like Dad’s golfing buddies than rock superstars.

It’s refreshing to catch Fagen and Becker’s clean and pristine performance at a venue like The Pearl Concert Theater in the Palms, equipped to meet their legendarily high audio standards. Even if you’re not a devout fan, you can’t help but be stuck by how intricately immersed they are in their execution of music, working together like a pair of scientists mixing chemicals in a lab.

Last night’s show before what was essentially a full house at The Pearl was clean and captivating, the sound warm and full-bodied even as Fagen's voice was strained and cut out when he reached for the high notes (“strained” is a word to use when describing Fagen onstage, as he tilts his head and grimaces during each vocal foray, leaving the audience to wonder if the 61-year-old artist is somehow suffering or simply inspired). Steely Dan fans “get” the band with such devotion that when Fagen’s voice falters, to be boosted by a trio of female backing singers, it is not a problem. The musicianship, forged by an eight-piece band featuring two saxophones, a trumpet and trombone, is that strong. One of the more demanding jobs in entertainment would have to be working as a touring musician in Steely Dan, considering Fagen and Becker refused to tour for two decades, in part because their complexities could hardly be adequately reproduced live.

The performance was a 90-minute delve into the band’s most familiar cuts over their 40-year career. As Fagen said midway through the show, leading into “Dirty Work,” “We’re gong to play an old one now,” at which a fan near the front of the stage shouted, “They’re all old!”

“That’s right,” Fagen said, leering through his ever-present shades. “They’re all old.”

Fagen could have said the same for most of the audience. Steely Dan has the elusive 40-to-70 demo covered, as its fan base moves from recreational to medical marijuana use.

Even for casual fans, the songs were familiar from frequent FM airplay over the past three decades. In a measured, none-too-hustled procession, the band knocked out “Black Friday,” “Hey 19,” “Black Cow,” “Dirty Work,” “Bodhisattva,” “Do It Again,” “Peg,” “Aja,” “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” “Josie,” “Don’t Take Me Alive,” “Kid Charlamagne,” and, for the too-swift encore, “Reelin’ in the Years.”

At that, the audience, seeming in a state of denial, hung for several minutes until the road crew began disassembling the stage set. Bummer. The show could have gone on far longer. But the guys in black carrying away the equipment performed the task deliberately and with great care, in the true spirit of Steely Dan.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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