Steely Dan stopped touring in 1974. Halfway through a UK tour, vocalist Donald Fagen was taken ill and the tour was going to be reorganised but it never was. For the next six years, Dan became the consummate studio band …… but they never returned to the stage. After 1980s “Gaucho”, they called it a day and Donald Fagen’s solo career was launched with the very successful “The Nightfly”.
Fast forward to 2009. Steely Dan playing live in Hammersmith, London. These days they spend far more time on the road than they do in the studio. Since Walter Becker and Donald Fagen decided to do it again, they’ve made only 3 albums – 2 studio, 1 live. And tonight, they will feature only 1 song written since the aforementioned Gaucho album. The difference is that now that Becker finds long periods spent in the studio finding the right note a little tedious and both principals are now very comfortable on the stage. And so you go back, Jack,……..
The band minus Becker and Fagen open the show with a mellow reading of Oliver Nelson’s “Teenie’s Blues”. The crowd react as Walter and Donald enter. They’re an ungainly presence. Walter now quite portly. You wouldn’t notice him if you passed him in the street. Donald with that “skeevy look” in his eye. They lead the band into a blues which turns out to be a massively overhauled version of “Reelin’ in the years”. Memories of the recent Dylan tour where the words were the same but the melodies were a distant memory. This one works quite well but it is a very different sound than the original.
Much more faithful to the album is “Time Out of Mind” from the 1980 set. Becker and Fagen have managed to coax their audience into responses which match a jazz performance than a rock show. Solos are politely applauded and professionalism is very much the order of the day.
The live Steely Dan experience depends on a full band to make these songs come alive. Lead guitar duties are shared by Jon Herington and Becker with Herington taking the lion’s share. Keith Carlock has been handling drumming duties with the band for 10 years and he is a crowd favourite. Bass is Freddie Washington. Hidden away from sight on a second keyboard is Jim Beard. In addition, we have a four piece horn section and three backing vocalists. Fagen describes them as the “Left Bank Orchestra” (Left Bank being the chosen name of the tour) and he is not far wrong.
Another reshaped early hit follows with “Showbiz Kids”, driven by a slinky bassline by Washington and a remodelled chorus which is led by the vocals of Tawatha Agee, Janice Pendarvis and Catherine Russell.
1973 is the flavour of the day and we move on to “My Old School” with the horns making a powerful presence. Jim Pugh is on trombone, Roger Rosenberg is on baritone sax with Walt Weiskopf on alto and tenor. Marvin Stamm completes the quartet of wind instruments with his trumpet.
“Bad Sneakers” originally appeared on 1975’s Katy Lied and its jaundiced worldview suit Fagen’s voice well. He looks and sounds world weary. He resembles that Uncle who knows better than we do but is too polite to mention that our optimism and enthusiasm will soon be crushed by the weight of the world we live in.
Carlock’s rhythmic sense is called upon in a vigorous reading of “Two Against Nature” which reminds us that there has been life since “Gaucho”. The album that this was the title track of was lauded by their peers back at the turn of the millennium but the boys mean to pay little regard to it or to its less successful follow-up “Everything Must Go”, this evening. Tonight, we’re stood squarely in the past.
After that momentary wander for perhaps the best performance of the night, it’s back to ’75 for “Black Friday” for a very bluesy version of that track. After that we push forward just a little for 1977’s “Aja”. This is a song with lots of space for the soloists to excel and spread out. Fagen’s Yamaha Melodica leads the melody for the first section before Weiskopf on tenor is spot-lit with accompaniment from the full drums of Keith Carlock. The doubting lilt on Mr Fagen’s voice on “they think I’m okay, or so they s-a-y” is just wonderful before a Carlock solo takes over. All of this adds up to a wonderful moment in time.
“Hey Nineteen” is one of the a large number of songs in the Dan repertoire which features the story of an older man hitting on a younger girl. Becker’s guitar work is always clearly thought-out and never uses one note where nine will do. His rap about the wonders of the “Cuervo Gold” in the midst of this song, however, is one he has been perhaps doing for just a few too many years and its perhaps time to give it a rest. Great trombone solo here from Jim Pugh.
The lady vocalists take over the lead in a reading of “Parker’s Band” from Pretzel Logic before the song becomes a work out for the horns. They are more than equal to the task.
A pair from “Gaucho” is next. Prior to the show I’d said to a companion that tonight I would settle for the inclusion of “Glamour Profession” and the exclusion of “Bodhisattva” (perhaps one of the more over-worked Dan live choices). After a perfunctory “Babylon Sisters”, the opening chords of “Glamour Profession” are struck and I’m a happy man. This tale of how extra curricular activities threatens to derail a West Coast basketball team is well-handled with great keyboards from Fagen and Beard.
Every Steely Dan show features at least one lead vocal from Mr Becker. On his latest solo effort, Circus Money, his voice sounds more confident but singing live still doesn’t seem a comfortable fit. He gives us a passable run through of “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” before stepping back to his comfort zone.
Then its back to the Aja album for three tracks: “Deacon Blues”, “Josie” and “Peg” which provide the fullest audience reaction of the night so far. These are divided by the old Supremes hit “Love is like an itching in my heart” which provides the backdrop to the introduction of the various members of the band.
After “Peg” the band leave the stage to tumultuous applause only to return moments later with an extra member. Elliot Randall played the original lead on “Reelin’ in the Years” and because they are in the guy’s hometown and even though it means it’s the second performance of the number tonight, it’s time to revisit that song like it used to sound in 1972. The performance brings the house down.
During the encore, it all became too much for one old gent who leapt to the stage and led Security a merry dance as he sprinted ‘round the band. And the band played on…..
Final encore was “Kid Charlemagne”. Elliot remained on stage but left the major work to Jon Herington who rounded a sterling night for him.
This performance at the Hammersmith Apollo (nee Odeon) recalled some great days gone by. It remains to be seen whether the Dan can grasp the difficult nettle and produce a new album which they can embrace with the same enthusiasm that their audience brings to their old material.
Freddie Washington and Donald Fagen