Live review

REVIEW: Steely Dan at Manchester Arena

Donald Fagen of Steely Dan
Unattributed photo

Steely Dan
(Manchester Arena. 21 February 2019. Review by Frank Griffith)

Steely Dan toured regularly in the early 1970s, then became a studio-only band, broke up in 1981, and re-formed in 1995. The hiatus of their activity followed the release of their 1980s album Gaucho. The untimely passing of Walter Becker, in 2017 at just 67 years of age brings on a new phase. Happily, Donald Fagen, at 72, is still as vital as ever and stewards the band’s continuum today. The band was in brilliant form at the Manchester Arena, one of five dates on their current UK/Ireland tour. And after that, they will not exactly be shying away: they will be doing nine dates in Las Vegas in May.

The Dan Band opened with an instrumental sans Fagen and three backing singers with a jazz standard by pianist Ray Bryant, entitled Cubana Chant. The four horn  players consisting of Mike Leonhart  trumpet, Jim Pugh trombone, Walt Weiskopf tenor sax and Roger Rosenberg, baritone sax acquitted themselves impressively solo-wise on this mambo-tinged jazz classic. After which, the Maestro Fagen and  singers, Caroline Leonhart, Jamie Leonhart and LaTanya Hall sauntered onstage to great appreciation from the audience to render a stunning version of Bodhisattva from the 1973 LP Countdown To Ecstasy.

To follow were many of their 1970s classic like Hey Nineteen, Black Cow, Aja, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Kid Charlemane, Peg, Josie and My Old School. Reelin’ In The Years was handily served up for their encore demanded by the audience in a several-minute standing ovation; there was no chance of anyone going anywhere as the band emerged to perform one of the Dan’s first hits from their 1972 debut LP Can’t Buy A Thrill.

A highlight for this listener was tenor saxist Walt Weiskopf’s, solo and duets with  explosive drummer Keith Carlock, on Aja, the title track from the classic 1977 LP. These solo spots were immortalised on the LP by none other than Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd, so no pressure, Walt! Actually, his and Carlock’s efforts were just as impressive which is so emblematic of how jazz and improvisation are not best measured on a scale of better or worse but just different. So much of the “criteria” in my view is dictated and formed by the time, place and residual “climatic” factors and influences that surround and affect the performance.

One of the major distinctive factors of Steely Dan is the role of the guitar in the band. This was superbly demonstrated and realised by Jon Herington. Standing out in front alongside Fagen,  Jon’s frequent brief solo bursts provided a counterfoil and narrative to Fagen’s and the three female singers’ melodies and lyrics. The guitar role in The Dan sound is equal to the vocals and gist and message that the songs portray. A wordless component that guides and grounds the listener throughout. A task that Herington rose to with aplomb with his brief and succinct improvised offerings.

The piano and keyboards work of Jim Beard also shone throughout with his frequent solos and “comping”. These were not only brilliant-sounding but never got in the way of Fagen’s comping on the Fender Rhodes keyboard. This was a great example of every band member having distinctive roles yet never getting in each other’s way. A difficult feat for a 13-piece ensemble! A truly great and heroic performance met with great glee and appreciation by all.

The concert was opened by the Steve Winwood and his band including noted saxophonist, Paul Booth, blowing up a storm on tenor and baritone sax. Their set included several of Winwood’s hits all of which showed him in great form on guitar, Hammond organ and vocals. The band got the burners well warmed for what was to follow.

MANCHESTER SET LIST (From Setlist.fm)

Cubano Chant (Band only)(Ray Bryant cover)
Bodhisattva
Hey Nineteen
Black Friday
Aja
Green Earrings
Black Cow
Time Out of Mind
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Kid Charlemagne
Dirty Work
Peg
Babylon Sisters
Keep That Same Old Feeling (Crusaders cover)
Josie
My Old School

Encores:
Reelin’ in the Years
A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry

Saxophonist/arranger Frank Griffith recently moved to the Liverpool area. His next London appearances will be at Boaters in Kingston on 9 June and The Milford Arms in Isleworth on 10 June.

There are three remaining Steely Dan shows on thecurrent tour:  tonight in Birmingham, 25 Feb in Wembley Conference Centre and 28 Feb in Dublin.

Categories: Live review

11 replies »

  1. I have listened to The Dan all of my life. My family could not avoid listening to them too. I am now in my 70th year and have a son who is 25. I always promised him that I would take him to see them If they toured in the UK again. We went to The Manchester show and it was everything you said it was. My son was blown away as I was. It was definitely worth waiting for. If they come again the rest of my family are demanding to be taken too. Could be expensive! Thank you for the wonderful review. Its the best one I have read!

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  2. Excellent review. My wife and I were at Manchester and spent some of the time crying and shaking, since we've waited over 40 years to see them. Majestic, enthralling, powerful, subtle – this concert had it all. We were in the presence of greatness.

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  3. I was at this. Absolutely loved it, what a band, what a songwriter (with Walter).

    If I could have a wish: I'd love them to do a tour of slightly smaller venues here, which I understand is more the norm for the band in the States, so that's theateres rather than arenas. Even with the best engineers and equipment in the world, the detail gets lost in an arena, and the detail is key to Steely Dans music. But hey, I'm just thrilled to see my fave band ever!

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  4. I'm another life long Dan fan so what a thrill to finally see at least one of my all time heroes.
    Fantastic musicians and what a brilliant set at last night's London Arena gig (tho have to agree with Sky Lark's comments on suitability of venue).
    Added bonuses of Steve Winwood taking lead on Pretzel Logic and Eliot Randal brought out for Reelin in the Years – fantastic night!

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  5. I absolutely loved the Manchester show. Pure perfection, professional and AJA was on another level.Very chatty Donald who looked like he was having a ball. Please play Do It Again – It would be absolute heaven. Steve Winwood was excellent & best support I have seen. Overall night of pure awesome wonder- thanks for making me so very happy.X

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  6. I, too, was blown away by the totally awesome set from Steely Dan at Wembley, with its jaw-droppingly brilliant arrangements and musicianship. Each song from the watertight Steely Dan portfolio was subtly refined, developed and elevated to a new height (no mean feat with the bar set so high). Exceptionally high standard all round, with the brass, bass, percussion, keys and vocalists all given the chance to shine in solo spots. Worth a special mention, Jon Herington's intelligent, crafted guitar work, modulating the flow with tone- and note-perfect fluency. There was the bonus of guest spots from Steve Winwood, duetting on vocals and Hammond with Fagen on Pretzel Logic, and Elliott Randall, Reelin' in the Years). And great sound quality and balance. Absolutely superb, without hesitation the first contender for my live set of the year. On the 7-day residencies that Steely Dan now take on – how about a week at Ronnie's or The Palladium – or at another of London's intimate music venues?

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  7. Lifelong Steely Dan fan ever since the release of Can't But a Thrill in '72. I have seen them several times, was fortunate enough to see them with Walter Becker, and never pass up a chance to experience them. Actually just saw them this past summer and Donald Fagen at 72 still amazes me, puts on an awesome show. Also, there are not many guitarist better than Jon Herington, he's very talented!

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  8. Congratulations Davie. That is definitely a first.

    I'll fess up: I hadn't spotted the Glasgow date, and since we get regularly crucified for doing the opposite, (i.e. writing about a “UK tour” when it hasn't taken in, say, Plockton or Anstruther), I changed Frank Griffith's original copy which did in fact correctly say “UK/Ireland tour”.

    So good spot and thanks for taking the trouble to read.

    Sebastian (Editor)

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