The pairing — Elvis Costello and the Imposters opening for Steely Dan (opening!) — makes sense for reasons it's difficult to articulate. Maybe it's the "jazz" influences, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's evident from the beginning and Elvis Costello's there from birth (he is, after all, the son of a big-band leader of some renown). Or the expansive songbooks filled with standards, popular hits and deep cuts coveted by devoted cult followings. Or the fact each is so singular they didn't even spawn imitators during their climb of the charts. Or the clockwork professionalism each displays: Clock in by 7, give the people what they want, clock out at 8, next.
Sunday night at the Gexa Energy Pavilion, theirs was the perfect bill, eliciting the broad grin of contented recognition at old friends dusted off, dialed in and turned up. This was Lynyrd Skynrd coming out and doing three hours of "Freebird." Sure, people left disappointed that they didn't hear, oh, "Accidents Will Happen" or "Babylon Sisters." But with an estimable back catalog spread between the two acts, there are bound to be egregious omissions. Otherwise the show would last weeks.
Costello — who looked as hot as it felt in the sweltering, decrepit Gexa Easy Bake Oven bearing the brunt of the setting sun — began promptly at 7, with an oldie but goodie whose bit-of-a-dig title might as well be this show's moniker: "I Hope You're Happy Now" (from 1986's Blood & Chocolate, among his best). Then, to 1980's "High Fidelity." And, even further back, to 1978's "(I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea)." All the way to the very beginning: "Watching the Detectives."
And each version was as catchy and dead-on as you could hope for — more than mere echo, but a tangible keepsake from one of rock's best singer-songwriters paying respect to the back catalog after once trying to disavow its existence. (Costello's muddy mix could have been clearer, though; why does Gexa always insist on punishing the opening act?)
Still, despite the occasional surprises ("Man out of Time" from 1982's Imperial Bedroom, among his best) and the inevitable (and perfectly rousing) renditions of "Alison" and "Pump It Up" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," Costello doesn't end the history lesson at Way-Way-Back. His set Sunday delivered more recent offerings, among then the pulsating, snarling, sounds-like- '80"Bedlam" from 2004's The Delivery Man and the only-5-years-old country ballad "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," the only song to get a introduction and explanation.
Steely Dan's set — alas, twice as long as Elvis' — never got past 1980 and Gaucho and "Hey Nineteen" (which is a song about being "the dandy of Gamma Chi" way back in '67 and might as well be Olden English at this late date). No acknowledgement of the the two records made in the last 15 years. The hits and nothing but. Or, as Fagen said from behind his keyboard: "I think you'll know most of 'em. If you don't, pretend you do." (As if.) Or, as Becker said from behind his rotating assortment of guitars, "It's gonna be a super-duper night."
And, of course, it was: Fagen and Becker were backed by a top-notch big band anchored by drummer Keith Carlock, the University of North Texas graduate, and back-up singers perfectly capable of taking center stage (as they did during "Dirty Work," a highlight). And theirs is a no-lose compendium of choices whose every chorus even the casual fan knows kinda-sorta by heart (good luck getting "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" out of your head for the rest of the day). If anything else sounds better than "Josie" or "Peg" or "Kid Charlemagne" or "Show Biz Kids" played loud and outside in the middle of summer, prove it.