Steely Dan: so long hey thanks my friend

reviews the legend’s Bluesfest show in London and pays tribute to the late Walter Becker

Image: Arielinson

The first gig I ever went to was Nearly Dan, a tribute band to American jazz rock band Steely Dan. This was largely due to my dad’s musical tastes and the lack of anything else to do in my spare time in my younger years. It was in Bury, and I can’t remember much else except being the youngest person there by far.

Fast forward a number of years to early 2017, and the actual Steely Dan announce their first UK performance in almost a decade, with support from the Doobie Brothers at BluesFest 2017. It is not long before my ticket is booked to see these two legendary bands perform at the O2 Arena in London on 29 October.

Steely Dan were founded in 1972 by Walter Becker (guitar, bass, backing vocals) and Donald Fagen (keyboard, lead vocals) after they met a few years prior at Bard College in Annendale-on-Hudson, New York. Despite originally being a six-piece, Becker and Fagen have been the two core members since 1974 when the band ceased live performances, and collaborated with session musicians on their subsequent recordings.

Although they ultimately disbanded in 1981, this period saw them release seven studio albums, the most notorious of which is probably 1977’s Aja , which saw the duo experiment with many different combinations of session players, sublimely combined pop, rock and jazz, and has gone on to be considered one of the greatest albums of all time. Fortunately, Becker and Fagen reunited in 1993, and went on to record a further two al – bums and tour steadily for a number of years.

I was very excited to have the opportunity to see them in the flesh. However, just two months before BluesFest, I heard the tragic news that Walter Becker had died on 3 September. I was shocked to hear this, as he was only 67 and seemed to be in good health. In fact, a cause of death has still not been announced. In a statement released to the media on the day of Becker’s death, Donald Fagen described him as “Smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist, and a great song – writer” and closed by stating he in – tended to “Keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” Although I narrowly missed out on the privilege to see Walter Becker perform live, I will remember him fondly as a very talented guitarist whose perfectionism contributed to some of the most intelligent songwriting of the 20 th century.

Despite this sombre news, Fagen stuck to his intention to keep the music going and the show went ahead. I was reminded of the Nearly Dan gig, as de – spite being in a massive arena this time, it was still difficult to spot anyone younger than me. After a thoroughly enjoyable set from the Doobies, which saw the crowd singing along to classics such as ‘Long Train Running’ and ‘Listen to the Music’, Donald Fagen and his session musicians took to the stage and kicked off with ‘Bodhisattva’. The set featured a variety of material including Fagen’s solo song ‘New Frontier’, classics ‘Black Cow’ and ‘Peg’ from Aja (the saxophone and backing vocals sounded immaculate I must add) and ‘Dirty Work’, my favourite song from debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill. Surprisingly, there was little mention of Becker and the band seemed unfazed, committing themselves to giving the best possible performance. At one point, however, Fagen commented that the band was different to how it was a few months ago and that he has to “live with that now”, a subtle tribute that was met with thunderous applause for the late guitarist.

The night ended perfectly, with an encore performance of 1972 hit ‘Reelin’ in the Years’, which Fagen has described as “dumb but effective”, and saw practically everyone on their feet. I’m struggling to fault anything about the evening, except maybe the £6.40 pints. It was very welcoming to see Fagen not only perform so soon after his bandmate’s death, but to still sell out arenas 14 years after Steely Dan’s last album in 2003. This makes me optimistic that we’ll be reelin’ in many more years to come.

One comment

  1. I was a little disappointed by the London concert, it was ragged at time and the necessary tightness lost in the vastness of the O2, but I have to say, performance I saw last night at the Apex in Bury Saint Edmunds of Nearly Dan was absolutely stunning- fresh, inventive and capturing the sublime fusion of rock and jazz that is the Dan. Catch them on their tour if you possibly can.

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