By the blackened wall
He does it all
He thinks he's died and gone to heaven
Now the tale is told
By the old man back home
He reads the letter
How they are paid in gold
Just to babble in the back room
All night and waste their time
And they wandered in
From the city of St. John without a dime
See the glory
Of the royal scam"
A royal treat from a lively Steely Dan
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.’’