DALLAS — When the Steely Dan-Elvis Costello bill was announced, it immediately made sense: Two acts known for literate songwriting, both rooted in the '70s.
They even each had classic 1977 albums with songs — "Peg," "Josie," "Alison" — named after women.
But then you start thinking about the differences: Costello wasn't really a punk rocker but rode a punk wave to a level of success, and has since had an eclectic, prolific career in which he's dabbled in all sorts of genres; Steely Dan — really, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — is known for its studio meticulousness, has only released a couple of albums since 1980 and rides a smooth, jazz-influenced groove that continues to serve Becker and Fagen well.
The contrasts were more marked during their concert Sunday night at Gexa Energy Pavilion, where Costello opened with an hour-long set warming the crowd up for Steely Dan, which clocked in at more than two hours.
Costello was with the Imposters, two of whom — keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas — have been with him since 1977 (and bassist Davey Faragher has backed him for more than a decade).
Becker and Fagen, the only permanent members of Steely Dan, were backed by eight other musicians and three background singers, although many in this group are starting to feel permanent themselves.
Steely Dan reeled off years' worth of hits, although those years were pretty exclusively 1972 through 1980, without coming off like a nostalgia act.
Credit that to the level of talent onstage; besides Fagen's crackerjack vocals, there were major contributions on guitar from Becker and especially Jon Herington, who is one of the most unassuming-looking people ever to tear through scorching solos; and from drummer and former UNT student Keith Carlock (who combined with Herington for an incendiary "Bodhisattva").
The horn section — Jim Pugh on trombone, Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Walt Weiskopf on sax and Roger Rosenberg on baritone sax — got their turns to shine, and the "Danettes" (Paulette McWilliams, Carolyn Leonhart and Cindy Mizelle) got the spotlight for "Dirty Work," one of the few Steely Dan numbers not originally sung by Fagen. Becker, who seemed to be in an unusually talkative mood, also took lead on "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More," a song from 1975's Katy Lied.
Aside from that song, the band never strayed too far from the familiar, but there were certain songs — a funked-up "Show Biz Kids," "Black Friday," "Home at Last," even "Bodhisattva" — that were more surprising than they once would have been, an indication that while the Dan is still a classic-rock staple, some of its songs are starting to slip off those demographic-targeted playlists.
"Peg" and "Josie" did get their due, as did "Reelin' in the Years"; the musicianship keeps all the songs fresh and they take on new life on stage, and the catalog deserves an extended life on radio.
Costello has tended to struggle at Gexa (or whatever the venue happened to be called at the time); the pavilion often swallows up stripped-down groups such as the back-to-basics Imposters. This was one of his best sets there, with Costello's voice rich and full even if the sound sometimes made it difficult to make out what he was singing.
His set list was, really, more adventurous than Steely Dan's, switching from old favorites from his 1977-'82 peak ("High Fidelity", "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea") to more recent numbers such as "Flutter and Wow" and "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" (which concluded with a beautiful bit of a cappella singing by Costello).
But given the conditions — playing while the sun was still shining, and as some people were still finding their seats, with unfriendly acoustics — maybe adventure wasn't the way to go.
Songs that had lush production on record ("Man Out of Time," "Everyday I Write the Book") got a little lost in the cavernousness of Gexa (although "Everyday" got a big background-vocal boost from the crowd), but the closing trio of Elvis "hits" — "Alison," "Pump It Up," "(What's So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" — brought the show to an effective climax .
It would've been interesting to see Costello to come out for a song or two with Steely Dan; on his Sundance Channel show Spectacle, he regularly played with his guests or traded songs with them.
But taken as a whole, the acts complemented each other, an offbeat appetizer leading to a comforting but tasty and well-executed dish.