By Michael Lester
BETHLEHEM — Stationed in relative darkness during the first three songs of the evening below an elevated horn section at the Sands casino stage in Bethlehem, guitarist Walter Becker slowly emerged to a spotlit microphone and applause Friday night.
He proceeded to meander — with verbal clumsiness at times — into a typically Steely Dan-weird, 5-minute rant about a post-concert evening of excess with a young woman. The arrival home would start with a trip to a hidden stash in a bedroom dresser drawer to retrieve and roll what remained inside into a “big fatty,” Becker explained. Once that kicked in, it was on to the booze. But a peek inside a liquor cabinet revealed not a single drop.
So, it was onto the bathroom medicine cabinet to whip up a desperate concoction of rubbing alcohol, mouthwash, witch hazel and hydrogen peroxide. Surprisingly smooth, Becker said of the mixture, while the remaining 13-member Steely Dan ensemble accompanied his pause-filled diatribe with a jazz-funk background jam.
The distorted conversation shifted to that hard liquor from Mexico whose name became suddenly elusive, Becker continued. You wondered where the hell Becker was going with this disjointed rap.
The “duh!” moment arrived when Becker relinquished the mic to Donald Fagen, his nasal-voiced musical partner in quirkiness for some four decades, and their trio of female backing vocalists, whom Fagen affectionately referred to as the “Borderline Brats:” “The Cuervo Gold. The fine Columbian …”
“Hey Nineteen,” about an awkward and ill-advised dalliance with a barely legal teen, was the Dan’s third song into a two-hour, 20-song show of greatest hits (“My Old School,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Peg,” “Josie”) mixed with the more obscure (“Razor Boy,” “Green Earrings” and “Showbiz Kids”) that featured Fagen playing hand-held melodica for several tunes and Becker providing vocals on “Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More,” from the New York-based duo’s 1975 album, “Katy Lied.’
Despite the presence on stage of Fagen, 65, and Becker, 63, a pair of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, drummer Keith Carlock, a 39-year-old who’s been with the band since 2003, stole the show instrumentally, slickly offering an occasional solo, a thumping intro to “Bodhisattva” and masterfully impassioned rhythm during a “Kid Charlemagne” encore.
Becker spoke of how this collection of musicians, which includes lead guitarist Jon Herington, and a 4-man horn section, has offered him and Fagen the most fun they’ve had in their careers.
Friday night’s show at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center, a crisp-sounding 2,250-seat concert/conference hall inside a sensory-overloading casino, marked the next-to-last date of this summer’s “Mood Swings: 8 Miles to Pancake Day” tour heading into a seven-night run at New York City’s Beacon Theatre that begins Monday.