Outsiders’ Night in Steely Dan

By John L Walters
The Guardian

LONDON — Great gig, but what a shame not to hear “What A Shame About Me.” It’s the perfect singalong anthem for fans of Steely Dan, since something in it chimes with misfits, jazz lovers and ill-groomed outsiders everywhere. And there are enough of us around to buy a million copies of “Two Against Nature” (their first studio album since 1980) and fill the immense Wembley Arena to hear the 13-piece touring manifestation, led by founders and songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Apart from just three new numbers (including the sly “Cousin Dupree”) this was a night for old favourites, including punchy versions of “The Boston Rag,” “My Old School,” “Black Friday,” “Kid Charlemagne” and “Don’t Take Me Alive,” all written before straw boss/trumpeter Michael Leonhart was born.The band also included drummer Ricky Lawson, trombonist Jim Pugh and singers Carolyn Leonhart, Cynthia Calhoun and Victoria Cave providing delicious backing vocals and sharing lead vocals for Dirty Work.

Playing two lengthy sets, they were a hard-working, note-perfect band, with a lighting and back projection team who hit the cues right on time. The sound people did the best they could to mix their layered arrangements in the arena’s dire acoustics: though Tom Barney’s bass and Bob Sheperd’s sax suffered in particular you could still hear most of the notes.

As composers, Becker and Fagen are musicians’ musicians, and their best songs provide a perfect vehicle for all manner of performance expertise. Guitarist Jon Herington has the most difficult job having to paraphrase nearly every lead and rhythm guitarist who has ever played with Steely Dan while a thousand jealous guitarists examine each lick. Walter Becker whose bluesy guitar dominates the new album, is a more relaxed presence, wandering around, leaning back against his amp and introducing his band in the manner of a soul revue MC.

As front man, Fagen has slowly developed from a morose introvert who hated the sound of his own voice to an authoritative bandleader, hunched behind his Rhodes piano like a younger Ray Charles. After “Jack Of Speed,” Fagen cues the sublimely catchy “Hey Nineteen” by announcing: ”And now for another sordid story”. Populated by human yo-yos, opportunistic seducers, dangerous girls and unreliable narrators Steely Dan’s lyrics are the stuff of a thousand screenplays.

I would guess that every member of the arena crowd had a copy of “Aja” (their “Sgt Pepper”): every song from that multimillion-selling album was greeted by wild applause. “Josie” was introduced by an impressive acoustic piano solo by Ted Baker (sneaking in a musical reference to the sadly absent “Janie Runaway”) and “Deacon Blue” sounded more majestic than I ever realised back in 1977, with Cornelius Bumpus’s eloquent and moving tenor echoing the refrain: ”They got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose.”

Despite the bogus sleeve notes, satire and downbeat commentary encoded in every website, tour brochure and official biography, and notwithstanding the labyrinthine lyrics, there is a sentimental mood at the heart of Steely Dan, a romantic vision of a jazz that died before they were born combined with a distaste for the decaying corpse of rock’n’roll. To turn this into the steaming, amplified melange of an international tour (with branded T-shirts, caps and even Steely Dan mouse mats), playing the hits to a swaying mass of happy fans, is some kind of triumph.

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