Thirty-eight long years ago, Elvis Costello and Steely Dan both made records that proved to be landmarks. That was Costello’s first, “My Aim Is True,” which brought a writerly sensibility to the energy of punk rock; and Steely Dan’s sixth, “Aja,” maybe the apotheosis of their sonically clean take on ’70s rock.
That both albums came out in 1977 was about all they had in common, because they didn’t occupy different styles so much as universes. Steely Dan’s sleek fuzak seemed like exactly the sort of remote rock-star product that Costello’s seething pub-punk was reacting against.
Fast-foward four decades to Thursday night at Walnut Creek, where Steely Dan and Costello were sharing a bill. And even though both acts have mellowed with age enough that they can plausibly tour together, it still seemed like a case of different worlds; it kind of felt like two separate shows rather than a single event.
Two quite good ones, however, and thank God for wizened old pros. Costello opened with a solid hour of mostly greatest hits from the good old days, bashed out with great fun. In contrast to Costello’s more lavish onstage extravaganzas of recent years, with large ensembles or the big “Spinning Songbook” gimmick, Thursday’s show was a stripped-down affair with a four-piece band of Costello, longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve and Drummer Pete Thomas, plus Cracker bassist Davey Faragher.
Costello has covered a dizzying range over the years, recording with acoustic stringbands, orchestras, opera singers, Burt Bacharach, The Roots. Everything he does is always cool and interesting and really, really good -- but not as good as this. For all his wandering, the fact is that Costello was put on earth to bark out nasty songs about revenge and guilt with a rocked-up four-piece band.
This was Costello doing what he does best, which is probably why more than half its 13 songs dated from before 1980. Greatest-hits oldies trappings aside, it was still pretty glorious, especially with the ever-loyal Nieve’s mad-scientist keyboard wizardry. Somehow Costello still manages to tug at the heartstrings with “Alison” and snarl “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” and “Pump It Up” is still one of the best live fist-wavers there is.
Meanwhile, Steely Dan brought in more than three times as many players as Costello -- a 13-piece band with four horns, three backup singers and multiple keyboardists and guitarists. The fact that they were all impeccable players goes without saying, of course.
Apart from the size of the ensemble, the onstage vibe was very stripped down and old-school; yeah, it could have been 1977. The video screens went unused, and there was no stage set or even backdrop. It’s one of the few times I can remember seeing the uncovered back wall at a Walnut Creek concert. The playing was the thing.
As with Costello’s set, most of Steely Dan’s track list was straight out of the eight-track era -- including four songs from the aforementioned “Aja,” which concluded with the obligatory monster drum solo from Keith Carlock (who really should be declared a dangerous weapon by now). Solos were the order of the night, which isn’t surprising with a band this good. Even the trombonist got one.
At age 67, Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen has lost some vocal power, which manifested as fatigue. By the pre-encore closer “Reelin’ in the Years,” he was laboring visibly. Fortuitously, he was accompanied by three fabulous backup singers who took on more and more of the vocal load as the set wore on. Fagen called them the “Danettes,” a nod to his own wizened Ray Charles demeanor (and Charles’ onstage singers, the Raelettes).
For all the band’s cryptic idiosyncrasies, Steely Dan’s catalog remains one of the most durable of the ’70s. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” still coursed with mystery, and “Black Friday” and “Bodhisattva” just rocked. So did the encore capper, “Kid Charlemagne.” Early on, Fagen’s partner Walter Becker had given a long, rambling spiel in which he promised the crowd it would be “rode hard and put up wet.”
Kind of cringey, and yet he spoke the truth.