the tragic passing of Walter Becker in 2017, Donald Fagen is left to keep the
name of Steely Dan alive. Not only does he do it well, he makes it look easy.
Last time Steely Dan came to London, they managed to bring
the Doobie Brothers with them for BluesFest. This year, the bar has been raised
yet again, this time for master bluesman Steve Winwood to slide under. His hour
long set is filled with hits, many of which came as a welcome surprise to those
unfamiliar with this work. ‘Oh, he did that did he?’ was a phrase heard word
for word on two separate occasions. ‘Higher Love’ and ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ were
highlights from the set, with Winwood shifting from organ to guitar when he
pleased and repeating his most loved choruses for up to five minutes a piece.
The Steely Dan band eventually took to the stage to run
through ‘Cubano Chant’ before the enigmatic, bespectacled figure of Donald
Fagen took his position at his keyboard front and centre. For a man once known
for his reluctance to sing live on stage, his soaring, distinctive voice and permanently
tilted neck has an incredibly grasp on the audience as the band pound through ‘Bodhisattva’.
Tonight’s setlist is almost exclusively built on the hits,
with the band immediately moving through ‘Hey Nineteen’ and ‘Black Friday’,
before Steve Winwood makes his welcome return to play his huge wooden organ during
the title track of 1974’s Pretzel Logic.
They then move straight on to another title track, this time from their biggest
selling album, Aja. Full of moments
of individual brilliance, including Fagen’s own melodica centrepiece, a
spellbinding drum solo, and an iconic reimagination of the saxophone solo originally
performed by Wayne Shorter on the studio version.
By producing such flawlessly produced, perfectionist albums,
Steely Dan have dug themselves a bit of a hole. Listening to tracks like ‘Aja’,
you expect an immense sound quality- something that just isn’t possible within
the washy walls of Wembley. The Steely Dan sound is suited to luscious venues
such as the Royal Albert Hall and The Barbican; not a sticky floored arenas
such as this.
Either way, this show plays out like a greatest hits album. ‘Black
Cow’; ‘Time Out Of Mind’; ‘Kid Charlemagne’; ‘Dirty Work’; ‘Peg’; ‘Babylon
Sisters’. It’s hard to breathe when you’re singing this much. The bass pops
during ‘Kid Charlemagne’ pierce the texture like a kid with Tourette’s during a
conversation and the change to the vocal melody during the chorus is jarring, but
the indelible funk of the Kanye-sampled tune is effervescent. Fagen hands vocal
duties over to the band’s three backing vocalists, The Danettes, for the early
hit ‘Dirty Work’ and they pull it off just as well as original, short term vocalist
David Palmer did in 1972.
Annoyingly, rather than continuing the perfect setlist, a
cover of The Crusaders’ tune ‘Keep That Same Old Feeling’ is used as a backing
to the band introductions. Could something like ‘Haitian Divorce’ not be used
here to keep the audience from using this few minutes to go to the bar? After
Fagen is reintroduced to huge applause, an almost horror film-esque introduction
to ‘Josie’ takes us back into the hits, where the glorious funk of ‘My Old School’
wraps up the main show.
The energy and setlist of tonight’s show would have been
enough for anyone to be satisfied, but Fagen returns to the stage once more. This
time, however, there is a twist. ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ includes Jimmy Page’s
favourite ever guitar solo and iconic guitar tone, so when Elliot Randell saunters
out to introduce the song, it’s no surprise that this is a special moment for
Steely Dan fans.
While it was sad to reach the end of the night without Fagen giving mention to the bandmate he ran Steely Dan with 1975, it is undeniable that in terms of atmosphere, performance and setlist, this was the perfect live show.
Steely Dan move to an 8-night residency at the Las Vegas Venetian Theatre