Steely Dan – Still a Power House

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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.

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Steely Dan – The Most Unforgettable Night of Whatever

About a lifetime ago, my friend, Andrew, and I went to Leeds for the day and in the course of our shopping I brought home every Steely Dan album that had been released to that point, that I didn’t already own. By the time I had worked through albums like Pretzel Logic I was a fan for life. Indeed, Katy Lied joined Van Morrison and Bob Dylan in seeing me almost single-handed through some very tortured teenage years.

Flash forward to 2015 and my wonderful opportunity as I was invited to fly out to the U.S. and cover their residency at the Beacon in New York. I’d seen them a number of times but to see them on home territory playing with imagination and verve — well, this is the stuff that dreams are made of. So let’s take a look at their final night:

Who: Steely Dan

What: rockabye gollie angel tour 2015: “The Most Unforgettable Night of Whatever – Featuring Spectacular Musical Guests, Glorious Tunes and Riffage, and Whatever the Party Calls for! “

When: October 17th, 2015

Where: Beacon Theatre, New York, New York, USA

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The Greatest Damn Steely Dan Band to Ever Come Down the Pipe

Who: Steely Dan

What: rockabye gollie angel tour 2015: “By Popular Demand” night

When: October 16th, 2015

Where: Beacon Theatre, New York, New York, USA

“The greatest damn Steely Dan band ever to come down the pipe”. So said Walter Becker on this “By Popular Demand” night at the Beacon. And you know what – in terms of live performance, –  I think he is just about right. This was an outstanding night of music. The “By Popular Demand” thing might just have been a cool cover-up: I’m not really sure what was so different from some other nights on the tour – but slightly dodgy promotional tools aside, this was a very, very good performance indeed.

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What’s coming up in 2014?

Thank you to everyone who visits and supports this site. We now get more visitors per day than ever before. We get twice as many visitors per day just reading old stuff as we used to get on the old site on a day when a new article went up.

So a couple of weeks into the New Year, what seems to be likely to appear here in 2014 and what else will I be involved in?

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I Hear You Are Singing A Song of the Past……. I See No Tears

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.

Walter Becker

Freddie Washington and Donald Fagen

Jon Herington

Donald Fagen

New Albums on the Horizon (and an old title just to spice the pot)

Two of the artists I respect most have new albums coming in the next few weeks.

First up is Bob Dylan whose new album is due on cd and vinyl on the 28th of April. I think the artwork is dreadful but I’m sure the musical content will be better. It’s called "Together Through Life"

Next is John Foxx who, as I’ve mentioned before, has been working with Robin Guthrie. Their album will also be on cd and vinyl and will appear the first week in May. It’s called "Mirrorball".

On a more personal note, I’ve been working on remastering the sound on three albums for a band from the 70s and 80s called Sad Cafe. I now have a provisional release date for the first of these. The album also called Sad Cafe will be on Renaissance Records in the States on the 21st of April.

I mentioned John Foxx. Another album he has been busy on dropped through my letterbox this morning. This time he’s worked with Steve D’Agostino and Steve Jansen (ex-Japan). I’ve not shown the artwork for this one before so here goes:

Mr Foxx is frighteningly prolific.

What other discs would I recommend at the moment?

Walter Becker – Circus Money (not just because I was involved in the release of this one)
Alice Cooper – Along Came A Spider (oh, another one I was involved in)
Mostly Autumn – Glass Shadows
Bob Dylan – Tell Tale Signs
Revue Noir (Debut EP – featuring Sam Rosenthal from black tape for a blue girl)
Sam Yahel Trio – In the Blink of An Eye
Rubicks – In Miniature
Frankie Valli – Romancing the Sixties (one for the nostalgists – but very good!)
Marie-Juliette Beer – The Garden
Barclay James Harvest – Revolution Days (just happens to feature Ian Wilson and Mike Byron-Hehir from Sad Cafe, did I mention I’ve been remastering for them)
Bob James – Urban Flamingo
Saviour Machine – Legend 1
Son Volt – On Chant and Strum
Danilo Perez – Panama Suite
Richie Furay Band – Alive (Catch my interview with him on Cross Rhythms on the web and in Natural Progressions Magazine in the world of print)

Enough for now………….