Steely Dan Credit: April Alonso
Walter Becker does a stream-of-consciousness monologue during “Hey Nineteen.”Credit: April Alonso

“Northerly Island” may sound like the name of some obscure Steely Dan demo, but the venue is not an ideal place to see the band play. That would be Ravinia, where I took in the Dan last summer in appropriately bourgeois fashion: while sitting on a blanket spread over a patch of Highland Park grass, sipping a white wine, and grazing leisurely from a spread of cheese, meat, and olives. Unlike the ticketed audience seated in the covered pavilion, I had no sight line of the stage—but that didn’t detract a bit from the evening. You can watch Steely Dan, however you won’t really see much of anything: Donald Fagen, perpetually wearing sunglasses, looking ever more like Ray Charles, pawing and pecking at the keys of the grand piano; Walter Becker, stiff and moored, picking out the occasional guitar solo. Yet there’s little doubt that Fagen, Becker, and their murderers’ row of ace players are going to be precise. And that’s why the location of a Steely Dan show takes on outsize importance: enjoying them live is dependent on almost every element other than the quality of the musicianship.

These circumstances did not bode well for the venue at Northerly Island, which hosted Steely Dan—along with fellow baby-boomer bait Steve Winwood—on Saturday night. Consisting mostly of folding chairs crowded around a stage on the punishingly flat, paved peninsula east of the Museum Campus (once the site of Meigs Field), the place has all the comfort and charm of a military air base. You get the impression that any minute Bob Hope could run on stage to crack one-liners for the troops as part of a USO tour. The setting is easier to ignore after a couple drinks, which are prohibitively expensive, even for a venue operated by Live Nation. (For what a single tall can of Budweiser sets you back, you could buy a 12-pack at any Loop liquor store.) Not that the steep prices were breaking the bank of Steely Dan’s audience of middle-aged dentists and lawyers in Tommy Bahama shirts. Seated directly in front of me was the embodiment of the Dan fan: a sexagenarian in a T-shirt broadcasting his participation in a 2010 mandolin camp in Ocean Park, Maine.  

Maybe the only thing First MeritBank Pavilion—as it’s officially known, mostly to its corporate masters—has going for it is the skyline view behind the stage. And as the sun set and the band dropped those unmistakable first chords of “Black Cow,” the imperfect setting seemed to fade into the twilight, at last leaving no distractions, just masterfully executed music.

The set list:

“November Afternoon” (Tom McIntosh cover)
“Black Cow”
“Hey Nineteen”
“Black Friday”
“Show Biz Kids”
“Kid Charlemagne”
“Dirty Work”
“Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More”
“Home at Last”
“I Want To (Do Everything for You)” (Joe Tex cover)
“My Old School”
“Reelin’ in the Years”
“Pretzel Logic”
“The Untouchables” (Nelson Riddle cover)