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No static at all in Steely Dan’s wild, stellar Orpheum concert

BOSTON, MA – November 17:    Donald Fagen and Steely Dan play the Orpheum on November 17, 2021 in , BOSTON, MA. (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
BOSTON, MA – November 17: Donald Fagen and Steely Dan play the Orpheum on November 17, 2021 in , BOSTON, MA. (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
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Guitarist Jon Herington spent Wednesday night at the Orpheum gleefully tying and untying knots.

Herington tightened and unlaced the melodic knots Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker wrote a half century ago. He rearranged the tangles of notes that ace guitarists such as Denny Dias, Elliott Randall, Larry Carlton and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter laid down on top of Dan’s ’70s hits. He braided gentle harmonies and jarring counter melodies that augmented the sense of swing, bop and fusion in Fagan and Becker’s work.

Steely Dan’s first of three Orpheum shows — the band performs tonight and Saturday — had Herrington (and a whole host of master craftspeople) driving the pop standards forward with impish joy. Basically, the modern Dan band plays jazz.

Making a definitive distinction between a jazz act and a rock artist is silly (bands from Chicago to the Allman Brothers to Phish certainly see no distinction between the two). But calling this version of Dan jazz is purposeful.

Fagen and Becker quit touring in the ’70s then picked it up heavily in the new century with an evolving ensemble of talents. Now with Fagen firmly at the helm, the lineup has become increasingly delighted with stretching the tunes. Wednesday night, the band opened doing 1977’s “Aja” LP front to back. The band has done this a few times in Boston, and with each performance the improvisations get bolder, stranger, more complex.

Fagen himself, now 73, revels in this: See the sonic sparring in “Time Out of Mind” when Fagen put his melodica up against Connor Kennedy’s guitar (Kennedy being the second six-string genius in the band). The leader can still play and sing (despite a few vocal and lyric flubs). But Fagen’s chief concern is celebrating the catalog not by eulogizing it, but by letting it run wild.

Longtime-drummer Keith Carlock pushed the beat all night. He whipped the 12-piece band forward, hitting hard. When it came time to replicate the legendary drum solo on the “Aja” title track, Carlock played it mostly faithfully then jumped in later for a second solo full of his personality: as fast, furious and thumping as one can be while still remaining tasteful.

BOSTON, MA – November 17: Donald Fagen and Steely Dan play the Orpheum on November 17, 2021 in , BOSTON, MA. (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

New guitarist Kennedy, still in his mid-20s, took another tack. The second half of the show featured hits and deep cuts including “Bodhisattva,” a wonderful opportunity for a virtuoso to cram a hundred notes into a single bar. But Kennedy played it cool by not trying to do too much — the guy has a shocking knack for somehow sitting between Wes Montgomery and Buddy Guy, sweetly lyrical and juiced with rowdy blues all at once.

But Herington did the bulk of the heavy lifting. Like Carlock, he quotes phrases verbatim from the early records (the opening of “Hey Nineteen”) and goes completely off book (his reimagining of “Kid Charlemagne” sounded like both Django Reinhardt on speed and Eddie Van Halen after a 75 mg Quaalude).

So much more to say, like the Hammond organ sound, Stax-like horns and background singers taking over lead vocals turned “Dirty Work” into the ’60s soul song it’s always wanted to be. But that can be said next time. Fagen doesn’t seem eager to quit and his band gets better (read: weirder) every year. Get tickets for a show this weekend and take in the world’s top classic rock/modern jazz band.


For details and tickets, go to steelydan.com.