HOLMDEL, NJ — Elvis Costello and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan are two of pop music's most severe iconoclasts. They're right up there with Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. That's why it was a rare thrill to see them both on the same stage on the same night one after another. Fagen, especially, is a worthy curmudgeon of troll-under-the-bridge proportions crossed with Jack Kerouac and Ray Charles. Costello could be anything he wants depending upon the night. Genres mean nothing more to him than an old suit he could pull off and on.
At the PNC Bank Arts Center, Costello went into his closet and pulled out his 1977 "Angry Young Man" persona and, complete with original Attractions Steve Nieve (organ) and Pete Thomas (drums), did his whole set in character, spitting out the lyrics to such early favorites as "Radio, Radio," "Watching The Detectives," "Accidents Will Happen," "Alison," "Pump It Up," "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" and Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love And Understanding." It's always been my favorite Elvis era and it felt like time travel. (I'm also partial to his 2006 The River In Reverse project with Allen Toussaint.) He did 'em with style, flair and even walked out into the crowd like his friend Bruce during "Everyday I Write The Book."
The voice was there, hardly changed with the passage of decades. His guitar playing, always underrated, was sharp like a razor, and when Nieve put the roller rink icing on this sweet cake, all was right with the world. (They were ironically billed as The Imposters. Bassist Davey Faragher completed the lineup.) The sound was loud. The sun was setting. The people were still filing in. Elvis was workin' it. Hard. He had an hour. The Dan had a deuce. By the time of "High Fidelity" and "Clubland," it was almost as if he was Jerry Lee Lewis with Chuck Berry waiting in the wings the night The Killer set fire to his piano and upon exiting, sneered at Berry, "Follow that!" Elvis was pulling out all the stops as if he was defying his opening act status, even going so far as to perform more recent material like "Bedlam" from 2004's The Delivery Man and "Flutter & Wow" from 2008's Momofuku. But when the dust had settled, his set was, indeed, exactly 60 minutes.
Fagen seemed to be in a good mood. He knows his big Steely 13-person band is right-on-time every second and with players like super duper drummer Keith Carlock (who puts the ROCK into this delicious jazz-pop cocktail) and hotshot lead guitarist Jon Herington leading the changes on such sophisticated fare as "Aja," "Dirty Work" (with Cindy Mizelle on lead vocals), deep cut "Godwhacker" (from the last Dan CD, 2003's Everything Must Go), "Josie," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Hey 19," "Black Friday," "Kid Charlamagne," "My Old School," "Reeling In The Years" and their over-the-top cover of Joe Tex's 1965 "I Want To (Do Everything For You)."
Fagen's longtime partner-in-musical-crime Walter Becker took to the mic for "Daddy Don't Live In New York City No More" and his solos, interspersed amongst that of Herington, were concise, jazzy and to-the-point. (Wish I could say the same for his rambling band introductions and awkward stories at intervals that dragged the show down a notch). Still, the music was El Perfecto, complete with jazz, good-time rock 'n' roll, reggae, "popmusik extraordinaire" and funky soul. Staccato bursts from the New Orleans-styled horn section kept the action up at all times. I can only lick my chops in anticipation of Steely Dan's eight-night run this October at the Beacon Theatre which will key in on four different complete albums, two nights of "Greatest Hits," a night for requests and a night for, as billed, "The Most Unforgettable Night Of Whatever — Featuring Spectacular Musical Guests, Glorious Tunes and Riffage, and Whatever The Party Calls For." Let's just hope it's not on a World Series night.