Steely Dan and Elvis Costello – Austin360 Amphitheater, Austin, TX 7/17/15 (SHOW REVIEW)

Despite temperatures pushing nearly a hundred, a steady breeze cooled the crowd who gradually made their way in the Austin360 Amphitheater to catch Steely Dan with a half opening, half co-headlining set from Elvis Costello. Dapper as always, the Englishman seemed unphased by the heat as he took the stage clad in a black suit. Costello was backed by just three Imposters, who injected funk and even hints of reggae and dub into a greatest hits setlist. Stronger power pop offerings like “Accidents Will Happen” and “Alison” caught the ears of even more casual fans while the slow-burning swell of the newer tune “Either Side Of Town” complimented the setting sun. The band built on the momentum of each song, and by the time they got to the end of a finely crafted set with “Pump It Up” and closer “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”, a spontaneous dance party of khaki-clad baby boomers had erupted on the lawn of the venue. What’s not to love about Elvis Costello?

Call them “dad rock” or “easy listening” or whatever snarky condescending term you want, but it’s impossible to deny the sheer talent and timeless originality of Steely Dan. Going back to their landmark 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill, the mastermind duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have managed to make incredibly complex music that is lyrically and compositionally abstruse, yet song after song is irresistibly catchy. It’s no surprise that the mad genius mainly responsible for Steely Dan’s ironic and at times cynical lyrics has a reputation for being a little cranky. Luckily, Donald Fagen appeared to be in high spirits as he sat at his piano after a brief introduction of loungy jazz from his expert backing band. There was reason to be happy for the band and fans, as this show marked Steely Dan’s third ever Austin appearance; the first being sometime in the Seventies at the Armadillo World Headquarters and the second in 2013 at the much smaller Bass Concert Hall.

For Steely Dan lovers (a devoted bunch indeed), every song feels like a greatest hit, which works out because that means no matter what they play live, it promises to satisfy nearly everyone. Fagen’s voice was in top form as he led the large band through a set consisting mostly of songs from Dan’s most active, earlier era. The funky, disco-tinged “Black Cow” set a jubilant mood that got the audience grooving along. Walter Becker added his own touch with a long nerdy rant that had something to do with Pluto and getting high if you want to, a suggestion that found many a doobie being lit by that guy who could definitely be your dad. Despite the giant stage and venue, Fagen and Becker opted out of any elaborate displays, needing nothing more than a simple light show to add a touch of flare to songs like “Aja”, “Hey Nineteen”, “Dirty Work” and “Peg”. These two artists have always surrounded themselves with major talent, and their band and backup singers elevated each song above the studio cut with precise grooves, big bold horn flourishes, and explosive solos. Even that legendary guitar solo on “Reelin’ In The Years” – which closed out the set – was flawlessly nailed.

An encore of “Kid Charlemagne” sealed the deal and fans of the Dan were given a performance that sounded fresh and vibrant, making it almost hard to believe that the two leaders are reeling in the years themselves. Plenty in attendance were there for nostalgia, but there were handfuls of youngsters folks equally psyched on the band, showing that even in today’s busy musical landscape, Steely Dan can still dish out something that demands to be heard.

Photos by Arthur VanRooy.

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