Steely Dan - Live at Wembley Arena, London - 9th September 2000
Here's a band that named themselves after a dildo in William Burroughs'
Naked Lunch. But it's not really a band. It's two guys with a predilection for funny chord changes, epic or kinky storylines, and the best session players that money can buy. Founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are two unlikely rock stars, arguably with no sex appeal and too upmarket for most rock'n'roll tastes. Some would call them an acquired taste. At heart they are a grown up college band, writing about themes that sprang from literary characters in books as much as from real life. Most songs are about 'me and you'. Steely Dan writes songs about 'them'.
The backbone of their music is Rock and Rhythm and Blues, but the style and the colour owe as much to Duke Ellington as to Elvis. This year they celebrate surviving a 30 year career, but in fact 7 studio albums from 1972-80 account for most of their legacy until the recent release of their reunion album on Giant, "Two Against Nature". The reunion and release have prompted a European tour. Live.
The big question: Can Steely Dan play live? Their first tour back in 1974 was considered a disaster. Collaborators Donald Fagen and Walter Becker retreated into the studio for the years that followed - top session players in tow - making sophisticated, distinguished and award winning albums that sold 11 million copies before the birth of the compact disc. But the answer to the question 'can they play live' in a word is, yes. Yes, with bells on. Often accused of studio sterility in their pursuit of aural perfection, Steely Dan, in their current line-up, open up, loosen up and let the players play and the singers sing. Their reputation as notorious control freaks did not come across on stage.
They played an even selection of songs from their 7 studio albums from the seventies - "Boddhisattva" rocked, "Peg" grooved, "Deacon Blues" was magic. The special treats were arrangement updates that one might have considered cast in stone. "Hey 19" and "Babylon Sisters" from the Gaucho album sounded brand new, with the former's reference to "'Retha Frankin...she don't remember the Queen of Soul" being replaced with "Otis Redding...King of Soul"(a test for the cognoscenti?) and the vocal arrangements for Babylon Sisters sounding better and livelier than the original.
Stellar backup vocalists Victoria Cave, Cynthia Calhoun and Carolyn Leonhart shared the lead vocal on "Dirty Work" and practically stole the show - they were superb on every number. In addition to the vocal support, Fagen on electric keyboards (mostly Fender Rhodes) and Becker on guitar surrounded themselves with 8 quality musicians - 4 in the rhythm section (guitar/bass/drums/keyboards) and a super-tight brass section(alto/tenor/trumpet/trombone). Some came with a pedigree , like drummer Ricky Lawson (ex-Clapton) and Cornelius Bumpus (ex-Doobie Bros) to top session guys who have played with everybody, like trombonist Jim Pugh. The man with the toughest job was guitarist Jon Herington - he had to play like Skunk Baxter or Dean Parks one minute, Larry Carlton or Jay Graydon the next minute, and every other ace guitar part had to be spot on and every solo equaled or bettered. Herington scratched every inch of that guitar neck - a true Mr Do-It-All.
The only letdown other than the boom in the room at Wembley (from which all artists suffer) was Walter Becker, whose guitar work was much better than anticipated (why has he hired all these guitar-slingers over the years when he's very much a 'player' himself?), but at the microphone was less than captivating on lead vocal. "Daddy Don't Live In That New York City No More" was a missable tune. Speaking of missing, where were the Dan's three biggest UK hits, "Reelin' In The Years", "Do It Again" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"? Neither did they do any tracks from The Nightfly, Donald Fagen's excellent 1981 solo album (or Becker's 1994 solo album). They did save soundtrack favorite "FM" for the first encore which was the only non-studio album featured song. Fagen, whose personality, like his lyrics comes across as 'quirky' on record was a bit of a show biz smoothy on stage. He was in fine voice. You would swear he was a one-take-wonder in the studio from his stage skills. Deceptive, eh?
Several "Two Against Nature" songs were sprinkled throughout the set - "Janie Runaway" was instantly acknowledged by the crowd, but the other new tracks were either too new to the audience or possibly too new to the band to garner the same response as the old stalwarts. Maybe it's like Steely Dan stew - it needs to simmer for a while before the full flavor comes out.
Showstoppers included "Josie" from Aja and "Kid Charlemagne" from The Royal Scam. Personal favorites were "Don't Take Me Alive" and the worthy-of-Sly-Stone-funk-award, "Night By Night".
The crowd, mostly 40+ (quite a few 60+) were more like a jazz crowd than a rock crowd, clapping for solos in all the right places, but no dancing in the aisles or rushing the stage. They awarded the band a double encore that let the brass section rip on "My Old School". Whatever drove them from the live stage back in 1974 has been conquered - the geezers can still jam. This is a rare treat. See them someplace if you can.
Steely Dan - Two Against Nature is on Giant Records - Cat No 9-24719-2. Let it stew on you.
© 2000 Morebass Media