Following 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