The heat was on Saturday, and Steely Dan sure kept it that way at CMAC in Canandaigua. Opener Sam Yahel proved a true companion to the jazz-rock band, playing jovial jazz organ to the gorgeous sunset, setting just the right mood to stroll the lawn and meet some folks. Hammond sounds pulsed through the thickness of Saturday’s heat, and by the time we paid attention, Yahel had already taken us well into outer space. Layers of sonic subtleties made the trip seem effortless.
Soon after, under those hot lights, the Miles High Big Band got things going, with the four-piece brass section alternating quick-fire jazz solos. This heralded the major dudes of the evening, Donald Fagen and the hilarious Walter Becker, better known as Steely Dan. Fagen, once into his languid keyboard intro, looked out and launched the night’s first words, “Up on the hill...”
“Aja” was a nice sit-down jam to ease in the crowd, so we were ready to boogie when the band followed with “Black Friday.” Some folks in the shell didn’t agree, admonishing my pal Melis to sit down almost immediately. We bounced out to the beat of “Hey Nineteen,” finding kindred souls at the lawn. “Your Gold Teeth,” “Time Out of Mind,” and “Show Biz Kids” got heads nodding and feet raring for the ecstatic “Bodhisattva,” an extended jam featuring the dexterous guitar work of Jon Herington and requisite flashy rock-and-roll ending, complete with double drum-strobe effects.
The real breath taker came after Fagen introduced the audience to the three soulful back-up singers, The Embassy Brats. The ladies took “Dirty Work” and made it their own, the female vocals making the song’s sadness even more poignant. Moody horns took it to a later era, infusing a smooth outer texture and inner contemplativeness that is not only signature Dan, but the tangible influence on bands beyond predictable genres, including mid-80’s China Crisis and 2011 darlings Destroyer.
The classic-rock two-fer “My Old School” and “Reelin’ in the Years” closed the show, a prediction my pal Tootsie made with stunning specificity. By the time I regained voluntary control of my fist from the hard-rock anthem pumping, the band had left and come back with “Pretzel Logic,” a tune everybody knew but couldn’t identify. The single two-song encore ended with the long-awaited “Kid Charlemagne,” the funky strut that only left us wanting more.