By John L Walters
“Hiya kids,” says Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, “we’re going to play songs from the recent past, and going back to the deep 70s… if you know what I mean.” Everyone knows what he means, as the 12-strong band hammer out the golden repertoire: Time Out of Mind, Hey Nineteen, Bad Sneakers, Peg, Josie, Home at Last, Aja. They are driven along by the relentless energy of drummer Keith Carlock – like Buddy Rich, Keith Moon and Clyde Stubblefield rolled into one lethal package.
Steely Dan’s “beatnik outsider” appeal, which speaks to geeks and loners everywhere, seems a little at odds with the sold-out crowds at the Apollo, who howl with delight as each number begins. Dan fans do not just sing along (screaming, “Yes, there’s gas in the car” along with Fagen on Kid Charlemagne), they mime the tricksy drum breaks, too.
The tunes are set to a backing that is more like a soul revue: witness the monster big-band blues of Chain Lightning, and the way the horn section trade solos on Godwacker (one of just two songs drawn from the past decade). Steely Dan can do jazz as well as funk, but the swing is projected with stadium-rock dynamics.
The note-perfect band does everything you would expect, but what makes Steely Dan so appealing is their writing. Fagen and Walter Becker are masters of the short-story song (in the tradition of the Beatles and Leiber and Stoller), peopled by enough losers and small-time crooks to keep William H Macy busy for a lifetime. It is top-quality pop art.