Who: Steely Dan
What: The Bluesfest 2017
Where: o2, London
When: 29th October 2017
There is no way of not making mention of the absence in the line-up this week of what Donald Fagen referred to as the Steely Dan Organisation. Steely Dan from their very beginnings have been essentially a duo surrounded by other musicians. One half of that pair, the peerless Walter Becker passed away on the 3rd of September this year. Donald Fagen immediately announced his intention to continue to celebrate the songs he had composed with Mr Becker by continuing to perform with the current group of musicians who have become the Steely Dan band.
After having to cancel a series of solo dates with his own band, The Nightflyers, Mr Fagen has not been slow to keep that promise, meeting all of the Dan gigs that were already booked and if tonight was anything to judge by there is great, great potential for the future.
There is no doubt all this has made for a gap in the band but that is not hidden and no effort is made to close it. The band now has one guitarist rather than two and the spoken interaction with the audience which was previously led by Walter is now handled by Donald and various of his band cohorts.
But enough of the appropriate sadness, tonight is a celebration of Steely Dan’s music. And what a celebration! 12 musicians on stage (including Fagen) and this is a band without a weakness. If there is a better touring band in the world today, it has not come my way. If there are minor disappointments, they surround curfew restrictions on the venue that mean that both the Dan and the other band who are part of this third night of the Bluesfest have to restrict the length of the set slightly. The first change that the band made from the set that had been the core of their night’s work on the shows they played earlier in the year in the U.S. means that the Maynard Ferguson jazz number “Fan it, Janet” which the band normally explore, before Mr Fagen and the Danettes enter, has been eliminated.
Consequently, the band re-jig the set to put a buoyant opener in place at the head of proceedings which they do by an energetic work through on Bodhisattva which originated on the “Countdown to Ecstasy” album. Some people say that Donald Fagen’s voice is not what it used to be but au contraire. Whilst it has changed, the full strength of his voice has been replaced by a sardonic lilt which brings true expression to the irony of the band’s lyrics. One of the Dan’s songs talks of a “gnarly downside” – there is a “gnarly upside” to the way his voice expresses these songs nowadays.
Next? “Black Cow” from Aja. The vocals of the aforementioned “Danettes” are crucial here. A name presumably stolen and twisted from The Raelettes who were the resident backing vocalist for Ray Charles who is a favourite vocalist of Mr Fagen, embraces the rather lovely trio of Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle and La Tanya Hall. They provide exuberant harmony vocals here and throughout the night ape the sort of mannerisms and dance moves that you might more readily associate with Motown.
“Hey Nineteen” came next. Now this was the point in the show that Mr. Walter Becker used to step up to the mic mid-song to speak of the virtues of Jose Cuervo Gold tequila. Again, no-one attempts in anyway to fill a gap here. The is no self-consciousness about this. What’s past is past and everything is different somehow.
Another change in the rhythm of the set is that Donald Fagen has taken opportunity to introduce material from the solo projects that he and Walter released under their own names. On other nights, this has meant two songs from Fagen’s work (usually songs from his most successful release, The Nightfly) and one from Mr Becker’s. In this rather truncated set there is no “Green Flower Street” or “I.G.Y.” and “New Frontier” is the sole Fagen solo venture left standing. Also, and perhaps very regrettably, the Becker composition, “Book of Liars” is also not here. The band had been using this to pay a particular tribute to their fallen comrade and to give Mr Fagen opportunity to speak about his musical partner. Tonight, he did so earlier in the set.
Next is “Aja” itself which is a tour-de-force of solos featuring Donald Fagen on a quirky melodica workout, a tremendously muscular workout from drummer, Keith Carlock, and Walt Weiskopf showing his skills on sax. The solos here are worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those featured on the original recording which were by the likes of Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd.
For my money the new arrangement of “Black Friday” is perhaps the highlight of the night. A funky bass line from Freddie Washington, an excellent counterpoint closing harmonic vocal ending from the Danettes and Mr Fagen, it inhabited quite different territory from the version on “Katy Lied“.
Then comes two more songs from the 1980 set “Gaucho“, “Babylon Sisters” and “Time Out of Mind“. Babylon Sisters included some great work from Carlock and Jim Pugh. Next, the Danettes were, metaphorically centre stage as they took over lead vocals for their work through the 1972 composition “Dirty Work”. The ladies took turns singing lead and all of this worked to great effect.
“Peg” lead into the mid-section of the set with band intros breaking into the Joe Tex cover “(I Want to) Do Everything For You“. Again, the Danettes flexed their vocal chops as they were being introduced before introductions were given to each band member who offered a brief solo and sample of their wares before guitarist, Jon Herington introduced Steely Dan’s mainman to rapturous applause from the audience. Fagen was at his irascible best all night, alternating between a whisper and a shout in his spoken contribution, flailing his arms and twitching.
Another of the more compact pieces from “Aja” followed next, “Josie” with Mr Herington on great form on lead guitar. This was a preempt to the band building into the real crowd pleasers, a soaring “My Old School” and a fiery “Kid Charlemagne” again with Jon Herington at the absolute top of his consummate game.
Before the night was over there was more drum work from Keith Carlock, a run through “Reelin’ in the Years” which was a lot of fun and a slightly shorter than usual close with the “Theme from the Untouchables“.
Untouchable. Now that might just be the adjective to encapsulate Steely Dan in 2017.