|Donald Fagen of 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)
Time Out of Mind
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Keep That Same Old Feeling (Crusaders cover)
My Old School
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