Steely Dan — the rock ’n’ roll duo comprising musical geniuses Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — never really seemed to care about what others thought about them or their music.
They play what they want to play, exactly how they want to play it. And their music, despite some super popular hits, makes people ponder exactly what kind of genre they should be pigeon-holed in.
Are they rock? Jazz? Blues? Pop? R&B?
Defying all “normal” conventions of how rock should sound, the answer is basically all of the above. That’s what makes Steely Dan so interesting.
Fast forward 40 years. Steely Dan still doesn’t really seem to care about what people think. Even if it means not playing songs people pay big bucks to hear.
Steely Dan, a band that never seemed to like to perform live and was disbanded as much as they were together, showed a packed house at Revel’s Ovation Hall on Friday night that they may be a more baffling and interesting touring band than they ever have been.
Although the Grammy Award winners still don’t conform to any musical conventions, they should consider following the golden rule of performing live: play enough hits to keep fans happy while playing the music that keeps you interested in getting on stage every night.
But the hits were hard to come by.
Becker, a fine bassist and guitarist, and Fagen, the lead vocalist and keyboardist, kicked off their summer tour Friday in Atlantic City. It was their first tour since November 2011, but there were certainly no signs of early tour issues.
The eight-piece backing band was ridiculously tight. The three female singers offered perfect harmonies. The sound was superb.
And Steely Dan proved why they are Rock and Roll Hall of Famers with a 2½-hour set that was equally entertaining as it was musically educational. Even if the setlist needed some tweaking.
Steely Dan, named after a sex toy from the William Burroughs’ novel “Naked Lunch,” opened with “Your Gold Teeth,” a funky jazzy trip from 1975 and a lesser-known track from “Katy Lied,” which set the tone for a night full of surprises and extended jams.
Some treats included a fun version of Fagen’s solo hit “New Frontier,” a soulful version of “Babylon Sisters” and the foot-tapping, catchy “Josie.”
Becker and Fagen are supported by one of the best backing groups to come through town in quite some time, and each song seemed to focus on a different member. Drummer Keith Carlock showed some impressive stick work throughout “Aja.” Dueling guitar work by Jon Herington and Becker on “Bodhisattva” was dazzling. And trombonist Jim Pugh was a major highlight all night.
Steely Dan played a few of their live favorites, including “Show Biz Kids,” fueled by some fine Becker guitar work.
Ovation Hall erupted when they start to play their biggest hit, “Reeling in the Years,” and the audience was nearly as appreciative for the encore “Kid Charlemagne.” The band ended with its typical closer, the short instrumental “Untouchables.”
The crowd could have done without “Green Book,” a snoozer from the band’s most recent album, 2003’s “Everything Must Go”; “Razor Boy,” a biting song lyrically that packs little punch live; and “Joe Tex,” smooth but dragged down by unnecessary Becker banter.
The fact they didn’t play their Top 10 hit “Do It Again” was a joke and an insult to the crowd, particularly first-timers who have never heard it live. And that they didn’t play the smashes “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Dirty Work” were like two consecutive kicks in the crotch. They didn’t even play their hit that was the theme song from the movie “FM.”
There were some neat moments, particularly when Becker joked during “Hey Nineteen” about Revel “escaping receivership for one more day” and the casino’s current promotion that offers gamblers 100 percent refunds of their losses. In fact, he seemed to have the most fun with “Hey Nineteen,” where he laid down some great guitar licks. Becker also stepped up to sing lead vocals on “Monkey in My Soul.”
Fagen’s voice sounds young and healthy, and he can really play keyboards with the best of them, providing the band’s signature, nostalgic sound.
A Steely Dan show is certainly not for everyone. Jazzy, long jams, odd lyrics and hippie overtones make for a very mellow show. There are no theatrics, just great musicians playing the music they love.
And for borderline fans, that might be a bit boring. And they aren’t exactly great about mixing things up, not playing one of their hits until near the end of the show.
But the sold-out crowd of 4,500 people knew exactly what they were there for. And their polite applause between most songs was only slightly outdone when Steely Dan played their few hits as people sang along but rarely left their seats.
The devoted cult fan base seemed delighted. And they should be. They were watching some of the most talented musicians on the planet enjoying what they love, which is fine.
Now, if Steely Dan could only play a few more songs that people really love, it would be a must-see tour this summer.