By Chris Welch
MANCHESTER, England — “We’ve never been here before, but we’re going to play the best concert we’ve ever played in our lives.” Skunk Baxter delivered this terse statement in no uncertain terms to the eager fans waiting on the edge of their seats at the Palace Theatre, Manchester on Friday night, last week. And the roar that greeted the band before and after their sensational set, proved the audience felt they had heard few better.
Indeed, the impact of Steely’s immensely enjoyable and thoroughly professional performance was still reverberating through critics and fans alike long after the show. For this was the new Declaration of Independence. American rock music has shaken off the image of being overawed by the instrumental giants of Europe, and Steely Dan have -– at a stroke –- made many English bands sound five years out of date.
A thinking man’s rock band, they eschew the cliches of rock, and present us with rounded, cleverly constructed and memorable songs, the work of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Instrumental prowess is mainly devoted to delivering the songs. But in concert, they add another dimension of vibrancy and improvisation that is not entirely conveyed by the albums.
And Jeffrey Baxter (he wants to drop the “Skunk” while he is in England), is a new “find” on guitar. A man with tremendous enthusiasm and drive, he injects the Steelys with a personality they might otherwise miss.
As English fans have been listening to the albums for a year or so, it was with bated breath they awaited the debut appearance. And they were rewarded with all the great songs in treatments that did not disappoint in comparison with the recordings, but enhanced on them. At first there were a few shouts from Manchester lads who might have thought from the appearances of the musicians (bearded, bespectacled, casual), and the accents (strong, slick), that we were in for an LA boogie band. But the shouts were soon swept away in a wave of applause that reflected a kind of awe. And the band were obviously delighted at the response.
Donald Fagen, who took up the centre of the stage with his grand piano, leapt around conducting, signalling, singing and generally holding the ensemble together. Behind him were two drummers, Jim Hodder their regular man, and Jeff Pocaro, only 20, who has played with Sonny & Cher. Walter on bass guitar, who co-writes all of Dan’s material with Donald, was largely hidden behind the cymbals, while Jeff and Denny Dias, an impressive figure in Russian revolutionary beard and mountainous shoulders, made up a complete guitar section between them.
Adding to the orchestral sound was singer and keyboard man Mike McDonald on Fender Rhodes, and high harmonies, and Royce Jones on soul vocals and percussion.
Opening with a roaring boogie (yes, boogie), on “Bodhisattva” from Countdown To Ecstasy they swung into “Boston Rag,” all received with tumultuous applause. “Thank you kindly, I can’t tell you how…” Donald seemed almost at a loss for words on this most important of concerts. More cheers of recognition greeted “Do It Again” with a powerful solo from Dias, ending with a surprisingly good conga drum outing from Baxter.
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is pure pop, the three minute song given its highest status since the days of the Beatles. “You’re making me feel most welcome,” said Donald. More amazing Baxter solos followed.
The first encore came with “Show Biz Kids,” and the second number was “a new one you’ve never heard before, but you’re gonna dig it.” The drums carried us out with a restrained, disciplined but energetic bash that stuck to all beats of the bar before lashing out, with Jim and Jeff working in unison.
Steely Dan will open a few ears to the way rock can be moved forward without losing its roots and essential qualities. And who knows, in time, maybe we will get to love them as well.