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Music Review

A royal treat from a lively Steely Dan

Donald Fagen performs with Steely Dan at the Citi Wang Theatre last night. Donald Fagen performs with Steely Dan at the Citi Wang Theatre last night. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / July 23, 2009

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How ironic - Steely Dan is on a four-city tour delivering front-to-back live performances of albums that to this day stand as the rock era’s quintessential studio spawn: impossibly clean, obsessively calculated, meticulously crafted. Oh yeah, they’re also brilliant. Say what you will about Steely Dan’s extreme insularity, “Aja’’ is a jazz-rock masterpiece. 32 years after its release, Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and a pristine 11-piece band played it to perfection at the Wang last night.

Fagen was miked so crisply it sounded like he was singing in the next seat, and Becker’s fleet, gleaming guitar tones fairly bounced off the stage. (I’d bet money these guys have the lengthiest sound check in the business.) The pair were flanked not by the gurus who recorded the original tracks - Wayne Shorter, Steve Gadd, Larry Carlton, the list goes on - but those musicians’ descendents, and in truth this band brought vitality to the preternaturally polished proceedings that has been missing from Steely Dan concerts in recent years.

In a band as devoted to measured virtuosity as this one, the subtlest surprises go a long way. Fagen’s witty twists on the microphone during “Deacon Blues’’ and “Peg,’’ a few insidious tempo shifts and fresh chord voicings during “Home at Last,’’ a new coda for “I Got the News’’ - those discreet nods to the passage of time humanized the music’s relentlessly cool, complicated textures.

But the real surprise came after “Aja’’ was finished, when Fagen announced that - thanks to a provocative interview several weeks ago with Globe music critic Sarah Rodman, during which she complained that the band wasn’t dedicating a night in Boston to “The Royal Scam’’ - Steely Dan would play “The Royal Scam.’’

The audience erupted, and so did the show. It’s a snide, mean-spirited, whip-smart collection, and from the opening bars of “Kid Charlemagne’’ through the sinister closing title track, the concert was transformed from classy to cranking. By the end of the main set, Fagen wasn’t reaching for notes; he was biting them, shaking each one in his jaw and spitting it out with a sneer that you could hear.

Meeting deadline meant missing the encore, but according to a friend the final run of songs included “Hey Nineteen,’’ “Black Friday,’’ “My Old School,’’ and a pair chosen expressly for the local crowd: “Boston Rag’’ and a cover of “Dirty Water.’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com

STEELY DAN With Sam Yahel

At: the Citi Wang Theatre, last night (Steely Dan performs “Gaucho’’ tomorrow and “Takin’ It to the Seats,’’ an Internet request set, on Saturday)

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