Actually, the most surprising thing about the set list was how little material from Morph was presented. Fagen played most of The Nightfly in the first portion of the evening alongside a few Steely Dan tunes--and not necessarily the obvious ones. The audience received all of these selections quite warmly; Steely Dan numbers like "Home At Last" and "Black Friday" naturally went over quite well, but such solo pieces as "New Frontier," the ersatz calypso "The Goodbye Look" and the late-night FM jazz-styled "The Nightfly" generated an honestly enthusiastic response as well. And why not? The partisans on hand had been waiting nearly as long to hear these songs performed live as they had for any of the others.
The ten-piece Donald Fagen Band displayed the sort of precise musicianship that one would expect from a group assembled by one of Steely Dan's twin architects. One particular standout was saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, whose probing solos and robust yet smooth tone recalled Pharaoh Sanders to a significant degree. His partner in the horn section was trumpeter Mike Leonhart, who was given a nice feature on Jack Teagarden's "Misery and the Blues." The rhythm section was equally adept. Keyboardist Jeff Young worked his lines in seamlessly with the bandleaders, and drummer Keith Carlock was both driving and tight on the change-laden tunes, appearing to navigate the complicated arrangements without the aid of the click track often employed in rock concerts. Bassist Freddie Washington laid down some very nice grooves, nowhere more so than during the band's funky workout on the new composition "Brite Nightgown." The twin guitar attack of Wayne Krantz and Jon Herrington provided some fireworks throughout the evening, perhaps a bit too many in the case of Krantz; while Herrington thankfully never strayed too far from the blues and sounded especially tasty on numbers like "Pretzel Logic" that took that approach themselves, Krantz's over-the-top virtuosity on his instrument became increasingly wearing in the last third or so of the set. One needn't agree that less can sometimes be more to recognize when enough is enough. Back-up vocalists Cindy Mizelle and Carolyn Leonhart made their presence felt all night, and sounded particularly delightful backing up Fagen on "Black Cow"--there's just something exciting about hearing two talented, classy singers elegantly delivering an absurd line like "You were high."
Fagen himself was in good voice all evening. Lumbering on to the stage in a black jacket and shirt in a manner not entirely unlike Karloff's Frankenstein, he settled behind the keys and delivered his songs like a hip, New Yorker descendant of Ray Charles. Aided by the Wiltern's fine acoustics and his own clear vocals, his lyrics shone through in all their complex and devious glory. The paranoia and biting humor that informs songs like "Third World Man" and "Mary Shut the Garden Door" provide an interesting counterpoint to the sophistication and refinement of the musical portion of the compositions.
For a guy who spent most of his career avoiding performing on stage, Donald Fagen came across very well as a performer and displayed a keen insight into entertaining his audience. No doubt aware that the type of people who would attend a Donald Fagen performance are going to be a bit more devout on the whole than the average crowd at a Steely Dan show, he passed over some of the more obvious hits in favor of some depper cuts like "Welcome To The Western World" when choosing material from that catalog. As far as the set went altogether he probably erred a bit on the side of not playing enough of his new material--the opposite of the usual complaint one has with a concert from an established performer, and certainly not a bad one from a fan's perspective to have to make. Maybe after Morph has been around for a while, more of those song will creep into his sets as well.