So how does a band that made its mark as a studio-only act sound live in concert?
OK, Steely Dan’s non-touring phase was 40 years ago and more. And founding members, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who have been the core of the band that long and longer, have had plenty of experience performing live since their 1981 breakup and reformation a decade later, touring pretty much annually for the last 20 years or so.
No matter how you slice it, though, the band I heard last weekend in Milwaukee sounded really, really good. And not just because they checked off a long-empty box on my bucket list.
The Dan Who Knew too Much Tour performance at the BMO Harris Pavilion of the Summerfest grounds was a masterful excursion through the first nine years of the group’s work. It was a disappointment that none of the songs on the 17-item set list were from the band’s two post-breakup albums, but not a crushing one.
The 16 Dan songs — there was one* that I did not recognize, during which Becker introduced the band, which had to be a cover — came from all of Becker and Fagen’s seven pre-breakup LPs. Four were from Aja, three each from Katy Lied and Countdown to Ecstasy, two from Can’t Buy a Thrill and one each from Pretzel Logic and The Royal Scam.
The absence of cuts from the post-2000 albums may have been a nod to the band’s older audience. It certainly wasn’t an attempt to focus on the “greatest hits”; Dan didn’t play one of it’s best-known songs, and their first hit, “Do It Again,” despite the entreaties of the guy sitting behind me, and the set list didn’t include their highest-charting single, “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.”
But from the insistent opening notes of “Black Cow,” to the final chords of “Pretzel Logic” — the encore the 5,000-plus concert attendees had to campaign awhile to get — it was pretty much all good. Dan followed the opener with perhaps the most impressive number, the title tune from Aja, a musically-complex number that finishes with a furious drum solo, in this case administered by one Keith Carlock.
Carlock was a good example of the 10-piece band that Becker and Fagen put together for this year’s tour, and the duo’s long-time practice of bringing great session musicians into the studio. The lineup included a four-piece horn section, lead guitar and piano players besides Becker and Fagen, and the Danettes, three female backing vocalists.
The ensemble helped the original Dan members funk-up many of the numbers, particularly “Show Biz Kids” and “Peg.” The music was funky enough that there a lot of people up shakin’ it and dancing in the aisles, something I wouldn’t associate with a cerebral band like Dan. The band could’ve had trouble living up to Becker’s humorously over-the-top introductions, but they were very good, and very tight.
The only, and mild, criticisms I have of the concert have to do with what has been a feature of Dan’s music pretty much from the beginning: the lead vocals. Fagen doesn’t have a lot of range or dynamism vocally, and his voice suffers a bit outside of a studio setting,
Becker has taken the lead vocal on very few of Dan’s song historically, and it’s pretty clear why. The Danettes all have amazing pipes, and buffed up the vocals; they provided the lead entirely on one number, “Dirty Work,” which in the original was sung by a vocalist brought in to help Fagen on Dan’s first album.
Both men were very entertaining otherwise, seeming to really enjoy what they were doing. Becker’s introductions, and his explanation of the liquor made with that “magic space cactus” (I think is how he put it) during the break in “Hey Nineteen,” were funny; Fagen uses some Ray Charles mannerisms at the keyboard, and also gives due credit to the musicians backing he and his long-time co-conspirator.
But, as Fagen asked early in the concert, “What about that Steve Winwood?” The former Traffic keyboard player opened for Steely Dan, and put on a 50-minute-or-so show that had the crowd on its feet and begging for more — not always the case with opening acts.
Winwood did numbers from all the bands he has been a part of — the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith — during a 50-plus-year musical career, plus some from his solo projects. And he also threw in the Buddy Miles song “Them Changes” popularized by Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys.
We heard Winwood open for Santana six years ago, and then as now his live sound seemed to suffer from a poor sound mix or something like that. Perhaps that’s the curse of being the opening act, not getting the “A” equipment or technique.
After that 2010 show, I wondered why Winwood, as good as he is on the keys, bothers to play guitar. I still felt that way after the first number he did on the six-string last weekend; but on the second, “Mr. Fantasy,” I had to admit that he can indeed make that thing cry and sing.
Winwood started and finished with the Spencer Davis Group’s two big U.S. hits, “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin” — singles recorded while he was 16 years old or so. Hearing him live a second time, I was left wondering why this great artist, who has made so much excellent music over the past half-century, is opening for other acts. Maybe he just doesn’t want the burden of putting on a full show and organizing tours.
Bottom line: Great concert, opening act and headliners. The Summerfest pavilion is a pretty good venue for acts like that, too.
(* The song during which the band members were introduced turns out to have been a cover of a Joe Tex number. The band, sans Becker and Fagen, also played jazz numbers at the beginning and end of the show, the finale being a Nelson Riddle cover.)