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Steely Dan at 02 Arena, London - live review

A compact set performed as part of Bluesfest's entertainment

Steely Dan live on stage at Bluesfest 2017
(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

By the very name and nature of Bluesfest, we know we might not be getting the hugely experimental end of Steely Dan’s canon. That they’re appearing here at all is a surprise as the dynamic (sardonic) duo are down to Donald Fagen (and band) following the unexpected passing of long-time musical partner Walter Becker just a month earlier. But the show has gone on.

Although we don’t get the retrospective slideshow backdrop projected at previous dates on this tour, three songs in, Becker’s absence is marked in typically deadpan fashion, Fagen expressing that some changes have happened within the organisation, but “I’m gonna have to live with that.” And then, after a ripple of applause that builds to a venue’s appreciation for the late major dude, he aptly, and poignantly, plays solo track New Frontier (‘The key word is survival’, indeed).

Previously, the pace starts at a lick with Bodhisattva, their super-tight Countdown To Ecstasy rock’n’roll jazz cut that showcases the whole band perfectly, from Keith Carlock’s drumming to Jon Herington’s lively lead. Herington is the sole guitarist this evening, a Dan family member since 2000’s Two Against Nature and, if not an actual ‘replacement’ for Becker, the 63-year-old New York vet handles any song – from Hey Nineteen to Kid Charlemagne – with unshowy ease and skill.

Fagen hunches over his keyboard, tinted glasses affixed, oversized leather box jacket over a grey shirt with fat-striped black and burnt orange tie… for some reason, Deckard from Blade Runner springs to mind, Fagen as a rock gumshoe ‘retiring’ other replicant jazz rock acts who’ve run their course. His vocals are in good shape: he throws his head back for characteristic emphasis and he gets a rest when backing trio the Dan-ettes take on the Joe Tex song I Want To (Do Everything For You).

If there’s one episode of the Classic Albums TV series that everyone talks about, it’s Aja. Firstly, it’s a heck of an album, much sampled and influential beyond rock. Secondly, it demonstrates how two perfectionists (Becker and Fagen) drive the crème de la crème of jazz, rock and blues sessioneers mad with their constant tightening of precision and purity screws. Tonight Peg, Aja and Josie are aired to our delight, as the audience get to their feet.

And that’s the secret to Steely Dan – the natty rhythms and smooth melodies smuggling in self-deprecating wit, intricate arrangements and a truckload of those creamy mu chords that defined their sound (and the era).

Ending on Reelin’ In The Years, it’s a too-short set at one hour and 20 minutes, but it’s a fine performance – and a much-loved icon is subtly saluted.