By John Williamson
GLASGOW, Scotland — In the world of Steely Dan, there’s the best part of 20 years has elapsed between their last two studio albums; time stands not only still, but resolutely to attention.
With 13 musicians and singers on stage, all of whom wear their colossal technical ability as a badge of pride, it is perhaps inevitable that any touring incarnation of the band will be an exercise in precision over soul. Even so, the scale of the triumph is slightly unsettling. During the band introductions, the scientific approach is betrayed by the information that Ricky Lawson, who plays one of the most outrageous drum solos ever during the rendition of “Josie” has recently been voted Best Drummer in the somewhat-less-than-intriguing Modern Drummer magazine. Trumpet player, Michael Leonhart is credited with devising the charts for the show and, of course, Donald Fagen plays Fender Rhodes’ piano. This is classical music without dinner jackets, science without lab coats.
Indeed, Fagen, and his confederate, Walter Becker, look strangely preserved from those smoke-filled recording studio photos of the early ’70s, which had them looking old when they were, in fact, young. Becker is still studious and reserved, making Fagen, by comparison, a visual foil. The voice that has tested so many hi-fi systems, is also in immaculate repair. In a show of so few surprises, the main one is how long it takes to ignite.
With all the component parts for a fantastic soul revue, the first set was both subdued and laboured, with only the yearning “Home At Last” and “Hey 19” conveying any real emotion. The post-interval output is markedly more inspiring: “Dirty Work” is rich in gospel harmonies, while “Deacon Blues,” “My Old School” and “Kid Charlemagne” rank among their finest songs.
For those who have waited decades to see Steely Dan again, this was a form of reaffirmation; to those of us seeing them for the first time it highlighted a number of facts, mostly that in such a clinically arranged show, perfection and tedium often go hand-in-hand.