Sixteen songs into Steely Dan’s 17-song set at PNC Music Pavilion on Thursday, it seemed like frontman Donald Fagen might come to and go from Charlotte without acknowledging the painfully obvious absence of his longtime friend and band co-founder, Walter Becker.
Then Fagen ambled back onstage for the encore, settled into the chair behind his electric piano, and finally paid a little homage.
“It’s weird for me to be up here without my brother, my partner, Mr. Walter Becker,” the 70-year-old New Jerseyan, sounding more puzzled than sad as he referenced Becker’s death last September from esophageal cancer. Steely Dan has performed since his passing, but the current tour — which kicked off in Charlotte — marks the first significant run of shows sans Becker, who was one-half of what made Steely Dan Steely Dan.
Added Fagen: “We’re just gonna keep on keepin’ on.”
That was it. No further ado. Directly from there, right into the famous intro guitar lick for “Reelin’ in the Years,” a rollicking romp Fagen and Becker wrote together coming up on half a century ago. The closest Fagen came to suggesting grief, in fact, came via the words in that song’s quintessential chorus.
Are you gatherin’ up the tears / Have you had enough of mine…
This wasn’t entirely unexpected. At a small handful of Steely Dan concerts last October, Fagen was similarly taciturn about Becker’s death — though, during those shows, a mic stand was placed in the spot where Becker usually stood and went unused the whole night, as a simple, quiet reminder of the band’s loss.
On Thursday night in Charlotte, meanwhile, neither of the two microphones at center stage were memorials; one was used whenever a member of the four-piece brass section was getting a bit of a solo, the other for Fagen’s vocals when he got up from his keyboard to take a whirl on his trusty melodica.
(Oddly, another mic did go unused to the far left of the stage, but it was very far left, set at a height of about four feet, and wasn’t treated with any sort of reverence whatsoever. It was unclear to me what the deal was with that.)
And so Steely Dan’s set was nearly devoid of sentimentality or frivilous banter, packed instead with a string of classic and deep cuts that — served up live — were basically master classes in taking a cacophony of sounds and shaping them into tight, punchy, cohesive jazz-rock.
Guitarist Jon Herington did a lot of the heavy lifting (and heavy riffing) in “Guitar Hero”-ready songs like “Black Friday” and “Time Out of Mind”; drummer Keith Carlock peppered “Peg” with powerful percussiveness and helped “Babylon Sisters” melt at the end into a wash of cymbals; and backup vocalists La Tanya Hall and Carolyn Leonhart proved able lead singers on downtempo tracks like “Dirty Work” and “Keep That Same Old Feeling,” the latter a cover of a 1976 song by The Crusaders. (The horn section was good, too, although I often felt like their mics weren’t quite turned up loud enough…)
Despite everything going on up on that stage, it was hard to look away from Fagen. As usual, he seemed to channel his hero Ray Charles, dipping and whipping his head, alternating between facial expressions that suggested agony and ecstasy, hiding his eyes behind dark glasses as he pounded out chords in an airy “Aja” and a groovy “Green Earrings.”
This wasn’t the first show at PNC of the summer, but it was the first show outside here that felt like summer: As fans boogeyed in their seats through “Bodhisattva,” Fagen had to remove those shades and mop sweat off his balding pate, as the temperatures stayed in the upper 60s and a fair amount of humidity stayed trapped under the pavilion roof for most of the evening.
If there was a complaint to be made — aside from, perhaps, the lack of a well-deserved tribute for Becker — it was that Fagen went with solo efforts like “Green Flower Street” and “New Frontier” over The Dan standards like “Do It Again” and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” both Top-10 early-’70s hits that seem to beg to be included in what’s essentially a nostalgia show.
Instead, the hit parade came a couple hours earlier, courtesy of co-headliner The Doobie Brothers.
With note-perfect harmonies and crunching guitar riffs from Tom Johnston, Patrick Simmons, John McFee and touring member John Cowan (on bass), the Doobies charged through a 17-song opening set that built to a stacked finish: “Takin’ It to the Streets” (with Cowan filling in Michael McDonald’s vocals), “The Doctor,” “Black Water” (with “Charlotte” and “North Carolina” filling in for “Mississippi” a couple times in the chorus), “Long Train Runnin’ ” (with Mark Russo demonstrating mad sax skills), “China Grove,” “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)” and “Listen to the Music,” which ended with the 69-year-old Johnston doling out enthusiastic high-fives to the front row.
It was a great start to a memorable evening. An evening that paid respect to some of the most iconic music of the ’70s. An evening that proved a bunch of aging rock stars can still bring it, and an evening that had fans who are closer to the end of their lives than the beginning dancing under the stars like teenagers.
Look, I have no idea how Donald Fagen feels about the death of Walter Becker; even if I did, it’s not for me to tell people how he should mourn his best friend and partner. Everyone deals with grief in their own way.
But I do know that Becker was responsible for thoughtfully writing and meticulously creating a great deal of the music and lyrics we heard Thursday night, and as such, I’d add this: It was an evening that largely wouldn’t have been possible without Walter Becker.
So thanks for a great evening, Walter.
Rest in peace.
STEELY DAN’S SETLIST
1. “Green Flower Street”
2. “Hey Nineteen”
3. “Black Friday”
5. “New Frontier”
6. “Time Out of Mind”
7. “Kid Charlemagne”
8. “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”
9. “Green Earrings”
10. “Dirty Work”
11. “Babylon Sisters”
13. “Keep That Same Old Feeling”
14. “Black Cow”
16. “My Old School”
17. “Reelin’ in the Years”
THE DOOBIE BROTHERS’ SETLIST
1. “Natural Thing”
2. “Rockin’ Down the Highway”
3. “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman”
4. “Without Love”
5. “South City Midnight Lady”
6. “Clear as the Driven Snow”
7. “Sweet Maxine”
8. “Jesus Is Just Alright”
9. “Eyes of Silver”
11. “Takin’ It to the Streets”
12. “The Doctor”
13. “Black Water”
14. “Long Train Runnin’”
15. “China Grove”
16. “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me)”
17. “Listen to the Music”