It’s not a stretch to imagine how good music can be when you are listening to the masters of popular music. Whether it is jazz, blues or rock n’ roll Stevie Winwood, Walter Becker and Donald Fagan are masters of their craft. They cannot be readily put into one genre or another when they blend so many diverse elements seamlessly into an earthy brew of funk, jazz, blues or rock.
They are master lyricists who can blend the cerebral with the whimsical. At first glance, teaming Stevie Winwood with Steely Dan may seem a good fit; but when you dig deeper into their collective catalog it looks more like the perfect fit, as both Winwood and Fagan can deliver equally poignant lyrical themes with their distinctive vocals.
Becker and Fagan learned from life on the road with Jay & the Americans. They earned $100 per show but then the tour manager cut their pay in half. It was as dastardly as it was instructive. Winwood joined the Spencer Davis Group at the tender age of 14 and by the end of 1965 helped blast the band into orbit with a cool R&B single entitled Keep on Running followed by Somebody Help Me and the incredible Gimme Some Lovin’.
Becker and Fagan founded Steely Dan in 1972 and immediately enjoyed critical acclaim as well as commercial success with their first two albums Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy. I absolutely loved Reelin’ in the Years and Do it Again. The rest is history, or so they say…
But the truth is more complicated. Steely Dan toured only from 1972 to 1974 and by 1975 they became a bona fide studio band releasing records until 1981. I gained even more respect for them when they entertained the idea of offering Howard Kaylan (of the Turtles) the job of lead vocalist for the band. Kaylan (Flo) would not agree to the terms unless they also hired his partner in crime Mark Volman (Eddie). It was another missed opportunity for the singers until they joined forces with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
In 1967 Winwood helped create Traffic with Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Chris Wood. This writer was present during Traffic’s 1972 show in Detroit. It was a listless, drugged out performance. Winwood never addressed the fans or acknowledged our applause. He walked off stage and never returned. Capaldi came back and riffed on his drum kit, but after several minutes he gave up and left the stage. We were stunned, there was no applause. We just stood up and walked out silently.
The gig was immortalized by Traffic’s 1973 double LP album entitled On the Road. In 1997, I saw Stevie Winwood at the Royal Oak Music Theatre with my good friend Scott Seeburger. It was an incredible showcase of Winwood’s vast catalog of music that spanned his entire career. He was in great form, switching from guitar to keyboards; his singing was nuanced and powerful and he was still able to reach the higher registers of his voluptuous tenor.
I also attended a Steely Dan concert at DTE about 15 years ago on a frigid September night. They performed several incredible jazzed up big band tunes and including the East St. Louis Toodle-Oo and Bodhisattva before the bitter cold swept in and convinced me to leave early….years later I’m back to DTE and excited to hear and see these legendary performers once again. I’m pumped!
Stevie Winwood started the show early before many of his avid fans assembled. It seemed curious that he started at 7pm, though all was forgiven when he opened with Pearly Queen from his Traffic catalog. It included an extended jam with syncopated percussion, flute, bongos and organ. It was simply exquisite.
Stevie’s portion of the show was entitled No Retreats, No Regrets. Winwood was in good form. He is thin and he’s aged but he’s aged well. He has a stripped down 5 piece ensemble and they are all excellent; the polyrhythmic percussionist, drummer, guitarist, bass player and Winwood, a multi-instrumentalist who is at ease with guitar, organ or piano.
Can’t Find My Way Home from his Blind Faith era meanders a bit he and the band brings it home like a big band on steroids. The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys lifted the crowd to another planet with just the right amount of power and nuance. At this point in the show Stevie’s vocals are picking up steam and the band comes in with just the right amount of nuance and power. His guitar work is incredible. I forgot how Winwood can jam with the best, using bass strings and occasional e-string excursions.
At this point in the show, Winwood addresses the audience, “We’re going to take an excursion back to the seventies.” He then proceeds to play Buddy Miles greatest song, Them Changes with a soulful, funked-up rhythm. Winwood’s organ serves to replace the funky horns of the original. This segues to a verse or two “You got me running; you got me hiding. The guitarist winds it up and lets it rip, incredible rapid fire riffs and the crowd loved it.
Next is Higher Love from his solo LP. His voice is an incredible instrument and the rhythm section is working over time with perfect syncopation. At this point Winwood straps on his guitar and does a blistering guitar workout that pierces the night and explodes with power as Stevie sings “Please Mr. Fantasy.”
Winwood ended his one hour set with soulful and off the hook rendition of Gimme Some Lovin’. Rolling Stone Magazine has Winwood listed as the 33rd of all time best entertainers in music. Yes!
Steely Dan is another matter altogether. Billed as “The Dan That Knew Too Much Tour” the musicians were in a playful spirit. It was a big band extravaganza with eight musicians and three incredible female singers. Music and musicianship was the early emphasis in the show as illustrated by jazz motifs, rotating basslines and piano trills followed by the introduction of alto and soprano saxophones, trumpet, guitar and bass guitar. A trombone solo fed the syncopated poly-rhythmic beats laid out by the drummer.
At times there were 13 musicians onstage including the founding members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and they were able to recreate the studio sound perfectly.
Black Cow opened the show and it was well received. Aja was up next, it’s a sweet ballad with nice harmonies but a bit drawn out. Fagen’s squeaky clavinet saved the day along with the explosive drumming and an incredible alto saxophone solo. DTE concert goers are notorious for being loud and sometimes obnoxious but on this night everybody was sitting down, providing a clearer view for everyone.
Hey Nineteen was perfect from the low key piano trill to Fagen’s shout out to Aretha Franklin and the Soul Survivors.
At this point Becker walked over to the edge of the stage and said:
“I remember the 70’s, I remember the song Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl. I think the 70’s were together ‘cos there was so much music then. Amen, Amen – that’s why I come here every year. One good tune – BAM; Another good tune – BAM; a third one – BAM. I was road hard and put up wet. Then we go back to our own domiciles at the beach. Tell me babe, is that great fucking music? We can go back to the room. I’ll give you a cigarette and a little bottle of something, a little line but I lost a little brain cells.”
Then Fagen and the singers begin to sing ‘The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian make tonight a wonderful thing!’ A trombone solo buys some time even though it drags just a bit before it collapses on itself just before an awesome one minute light show brightened the sky.
Steely Dan has a great catalog of songs that deserve attention like Show Biz Kids. Fagen dropped a few lines from the song; Poor people sleeping by the shade of the night / Poor people sleeping when the stars come out at night.
The band resurrected Dirty Work which was sung by Davis Palmer from the Can’t Buy a Thrill LP. In this incarnation of the song the three female singers each get a verse, surpassing the craft of the original vocalist with a more soulful sound. During the latter part of the show I noticed that Fagen had a striking resemblance to Bernie Sanders…could this be a sign for enlightenment?
Toward the end of the show Walter Becker takes on the lead vocal…he probably shouldn’t, but he is a monster guitarist and can jam up and jelly tight with some tasty 12 bar blues.
At the end of the night Becker proclaims, “This is the best band I’ve ever played with.”
Maybe…but no more ganja for you