MOUNTAIN VIEW — For many artists of a certain age, performing live comes with an understanding.
For legacy acts — it's been years since their last big hit, but they're still a marquee name — there's the understanding that you've missed their commercial and critical prime. Maybe you were born too late, didn't come to the party in time or the band closed shop before you had a chance, but both performer and audience understand this going in the door. They have neither the cultural clout nor the benefits of youth that once powered their shows.
Jazz fusion rockers Steely Dan and English rocker Elvis Costello bucked that understanding Saturday at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, although the size of the crowd to witness it was meager.
Whether the size of the crowd (right, during Costello's set) owed to the ticket price, which tipped at $180 including fees on the high end, or another concert nearby, One Direction playing Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, is anyone's guess, but neither The Dan or Costello played like the Shoreline wasn't packed to the top of the lawn.
Steely Dan deployed a 13-member arsenal for its two-hour set of hits. Although its two leading men, guitarist Walter Becker and keyboardist Donald Fagen, have now been reunited longer than the band's first incarnation lasted, they eschewed reunion albums Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go in favor of classic '70s Dan.
That understanding about legacy acts means less to two men who performed infrequently in their prime, turning off the touring faucet in favor of the perfection of studio wizardry. Still, as Becker and Fagen creep toward 50 years as collaborators, they're able to bring their material to a live setting without compromising their sound.
While that's not an easy task, perhaps more impressive is their willingness to subsume their egos and talents for the benefit of the whole 13-piece group. Even with that many players, everyone has a role, from the four-piece horn section to the three female backup vocalists, including one who took over lead duties on "Dirty Work."
"We're gonna have a great f—ing time," Becker told the crowd. He helped build up the boogie in a hot reading of "Black Friday" from Katy Lied. Neither Becker or guitarist Jon Herington were flashy and dramatic as soloists, but both found the right color to add to a particular song.
As the band came in lock step for a strong finish to "Bodhisattva" and "Reelin' in the Years," it was clear that time has been kind to The Dan and that moments of transcendence are still possible. While The Dan's superb 1970s can't be recaptured, their communal approach to the performance felt in the same spirit as what they group has always represented, putting quality musicianship above all.
For Costello and the Imposters, it was a warm, no-nonsense approach that helped them and the material feel timeless. Costello's commercial peaks were never as towering as some of his contemporaries and his latter-career efforts have produced some gems, including Saturday night opener "The River in Reverse."
Costello offered little in the way of banter, preferring instead to chain smoke one song into the next. Costello's keyboard player kept the night funky, stepping up the likes of "Watching the Detectives" and "Bedlam" as well as helping establish the mood for Steely Dan later in the night. Despite being contemporaries, Costello and The Dan once seemed divided into distinct camps in rock 'n' roll, but time has eroded those lines.
With "Pump It Up" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," Costello finished strong, displaying an efficient, workmanlike prowess. Because of Costello's transgenerational appeal — he can cut a record with Burt Bacharach or The Roots and neither sounds like a bizarre concept — he, too, has the uncanny ability to make the audience forget that it's meaningless whether he's in his commercial prime.