Who: Steely Dan
Where: SSE (Wembley) Arena, London, UK
When: 25th February 2019
What happens when one of the founder members of a rock band dies? There are, of course, no rules in these matters but it is something that will become more and more a matter of debate as the generation of the great rock bands reaches a certain longevity where members reach their middle-60s and 70s.
What happens next?
Then take for example the Eagles. The two founding members, of four, carefully guarded and, it could be argued, re-wrote the band’s history and then when founder Glenn Frey left this world, they seemed certain that they would not play together live again. And then with a sudden about-face, Eagles recruited Frey’s son and country star, Vince Gill and started to book Stadiums around the world all over again. One of the band’s friends, Bob Seger had a song on an album a number of years ago called “Revisionism Street”. It would seem the Eagles have become masters at that kind of thing – but again, that is their business and it would seem to be their decision and their management’s business and it certainly seems to keep the fans happy.
And then we come to Steely Dan. Steely Dan had gigs booked in 2017 when Walter Becker (co-founder) took ill and had to sit out. There was no suggestion that the band should cancel their engagements. And when Mr Becker did not recover, his recording and songwriting partner, Donald Fagen made it clear that he was going to continue performing their music. His initial attention was, it seems, to perform as a solo act but venues, agents and management fought shy of that and since there was already bad feeling between Mr Fagen and Mr Becker’s widow, he plunged in, took the bull by the horns and continued to tour as Steely Dan.
I followed and reported on their 2018 tour of the U.S. : see:
and elsewhere – especially on this site.
The tour, especially their shows at the Beacon Theater in New York, was electric as the band fleshed out their best known songs and sometimes performances of whole albums to great effect. It is sad that, like other bands managed by Irving Azoff (Eagles and Doobie Brothers etc), they seem to be choosing not to record new material, but they are the best they can be.
However, the decision to carry on is not a universally popular one and certainly not amongst the hardcore of their fanbase. I have heard and read a number of fans refer to the current band as “Steely Don” and there is a suggestion that Mr Becker would be, as the saying goes, spinning in his grave if he could see what is being done in his band’s name.
Anyway, let us turn to the show at hand and see whatever the name on the arena entrance, whether you would be going away thinking that you have been entertained, artistically stretched and received value for your money…
So, who is in the band today? Well, one of the key components is, without question, Jon Herington. Herington has the very difficult (nearly impossible some would say) of providing all of those guitar solos for which Dan albums became so famous down the years. He doesn’t attempt to recreate them in some robotic style, but rather makes each song his own whilst maintaining the feel of the solos that Larry Carlton and all the others did back in the 70s. Herington first played on a Steely Dan album with 2000s “Two Against Nature” and he has been part of the touring band ever since. Initially, of course, this was alongside Walter Becker but since Becker’s passing, he has taken on a mostly stand-alone role. However, on some parts of the gigs in 2018, the guitar attack was augmented by Connor Kennedy who had played with Mr Fagen’s band, “The Nightflyers” during the period of Mr Becker’s most serious illness. Kennedy will become a full-time member of the band beginning with their U.S. dates later in the year. Jon Herington copes ably with such notable solos as the one in Kid Charlemagne. On the encore, of tonight’s show, the band are joined by Elliott Randall who gives a hearty rendition of the solo that he created all those years ago on “Reelin’ in the Years”.
The rhythm section is made up of Keith Carlock (drums), Freddie Washington (bass), and Jim Beard (keyboards). Carlock is one of those great jazz drummers and it is not exaggerating to see him as one of the best of this current generation. His solos on Aja and the aforementioned Reelin’ in the Years, tonight, are great but perhaps his most significant contribution is the way that his solid as a rock beat is an under-current in everything this band does. Freddie Washington is right there alongside him in maintaining that rhythm. Sadly, tonight there will be no Showbiz Kids which in its rearranged form shows just how gifted Freddie is, but he is no slouch on anything and it is clearly evident just how essential Washington is to everything that takes place. Jim Beard sits to the rear of Fagen on the stage but metaphorically he is right there alongside Donald with his keyboard sounds. He adds in to the mix the sound of acoustic piano, Hammond organ, synthesiser and a whole range of bits and pieces. The lady backing vocalists seek to highlight this modest and gifted man by their gestures each time he solos but those with ears to hear will need no further recommendation.
Next, we have the horn section. A four piece – made up of Jim Pugh on trombone; Roger Rosenberg on baritone saxophone; Walt Weiskopf on saxes; and arranger, Michael Leonhart on trumpet.
One of their contributions which is often underestimated by the audience who are waiting for the appearance of Mr Fagen is the jazz instrumentals they contribute at the head and the tail of the show. Tonight, Cubano Chant, the opening number, is, in particular, hugely enjoyable. The members of the horn section take alternating solos on most of the numbers which are exquisite and flesh out the band’s material excellently. Tonight, Mr Rosenberg whilst being musically excellent as always, looks a little wan and tired. I hope he is well.
The backing vocalists who are known as “the Danettes” (presumably in honour of Ray Charles’ The Raelettes. Charles being one of Fagen’s musical heroes) are, on this tour made up of Carolyn Leonhart, La Tanya Hall and Jamie Leonhart. Jamie who is the wife of trumpeter, Michael, is sitting in tonight for Catherine Russell who is currently promoting a solo album. This experienced singer holds her own at every moment. This sexy, sassy trio excel in the vocal department and bring brightness and humour to the show. The Danettes take the lead tonight on Dirty Work from the Can’t Buy a Thrill album. La Tanya sings lead on the opening verse with the two Leonharts dividing the second. Quite, quite wonderful.
And then we come to the boss, Donald Fagen’s voice is different than it was in 1977 but that’s all – not worse just different. His voice is ably supported by the Danettes and the freedom he has given to the male Leonhart to arrange and re-arrange these numbers show that he is not a domineering boss which might surprise some who have read how Becker, Katz and this guy ran the studio with an iron hand in the 1970s. Fagen’s contribution to the shows does vary from night-to-night but perhaps that is because he has been through a lot of sorrow, trouble and pressure in recent times. One interesting moment tonight was when support artist, Stevie Winwood joined the band to play Hammond and sing lead vocals on Pretzel Logic. Then with the pressure off, he expands his range on the Fender Rhodes and seems so grateful to Winwood for his contribution to the show. It is a warm moment.
So, there will never be another Steely Dan show with Walter Becker. Not in this world. In the early 1970s, the band were driven to create artistic masterpieces regardless of sales. Now, Donald Fagen has the choice of playing smaller venues with decreasing returns or fighting to be able to use the Steely Dan name (which i think he would rather not do) but he seems to want to keep live performances of the music that he and Walter Becker created in the public domain. If he continues to record new music, he will do so without huge input from a record company and without the kind of sales he could expect back in the day. This is not Irving Azoff’s way. No-one is getting any younger and Becker and Fagen were very forthcoming on how difficult they found it to complete a song without each other. Things are all very different now. Should Donald Fagen continue with the Steely Dan name? That’s his decision.
Should you go and see him fronting Steely Dan whilst there is chance? I highly recommend that you should.