It was because of Mark Cagney’s perenially classy late night radio show on Radio 2, ‘The Night Train’, that I was first alerted to the wonder of Donald Fagen and, as a consequence, Steely Dan, the band – in the loosest of terms possible – that Fagen first roughly sketched out with Walter Becker in New York in 1967. Fagen’s regal 1982 solo album, ‘The Nightfly’ became, in several respects, the signature record for Cagney’s show in that, across it’s eight cuts, it also captured the essence of the host who, like the artist, seemed forever torn between the macho ache of cool and the lure of the middle-ground, where the audiences were bigger, the prizes greater and the landings softer.
Thom Hickey, on his excellent blog, The Immortal Jukebox, describes ‘The Nightfly’ as ‘a record that shows us an artist brilliantly finding the means to come to terms with the challenges of perspective’. In so doing, the record reeks of the after-dark and the small hours, wherein man casts one eye on his past and another into an uncertain future. All of which, at the time the record was released, was lost on my empty teenage head :- I was just struck by Fagen’s vocal and the smart, off-beat lustre of ‘New Frontier’, which was unlike anything I’d heard previously. I just loved it.
A memorable television interview that Mark Cagney did several years later with Pat Kenny on ‘Kenny Live’ put real side on what had previously been an affable public personae. In the course of twenty compelling minutes under the studio lights, Cagney spoke affectingly of his wife, who was seriously ill, about his own issues with drug abuse and about why, how and to what effect he had laboured on the graveyard shift for so long. It filled the dots for me on what was often a uniquely sharp radio show ;- Cagney had not only a back story but a scream too. He remains, to my mind, one of the more interesting characters in Irish broadcasting and it would be wrong to dismiss him as just another chat-show lightweight, cut adrift on breakfast television.
When it comes to rock and roll, Cagney has an incredible range and a formidable curiousity. But as REM’s ‘[Don’t Go Back To] Rockville’, Lloyd Cole’s ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’ and Prefab Sprout’s ‘Desire As’ defined ‘The Night Train’ for an entire generation of newcomers searching the more interesting edges of new music, Cagney was an instinctive tutor too ;- he’d thread Neil Young, Lou Reed, Springsteen and vintage American soul music seamlessly into his set-lists. It was education and learning at its most subtle and Cagney was effortleesly schooling his listeners on the value of context. And into those lessons, as primary texts, sat Steely Dan.
In this respect, their ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ album  and ‘Gaucho’  helped me, eventually, to make some sort of sense of the likely origins of much of the Prefab Sprout catalogue from ‘Steve McQueen’  onward, particularly the band’s enormously ambitious 1990 double, ‘Jordan : The Comeback’. Those records may not sound overly similar – and, on the surface at least, have little in common – but Fagen and Becker had already shown how possible it was to fuse smart wordplays with complicated time signatures, difficult chord sequences and a variety of styles – routinely incorporating ragtime and jazz – while also knocking out more regular, multi-layered, popular music. It was the scale of the ambition and the grasp of the possibilities of sound that bonded them.
Every house in Ireland is familiar with Steely Dan, either consciously or otherwise. One of the band’s best known songs and biggest commercial hits, ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, lends its title – and its chorus – to the long running and consistently repeated RTÉ archive-based television series. And scanning the sold-out audience down in the soul-less old cow-shed in Dublin’s docklands for Steely Dan’s first Dublin show in twenty-one years, its obvious that many of those same households are represented in the sprawl. Steely Dan might well be an acquired taste and, to many, a difficult listen – aren’t those always the best ones ? – but it’s still comforting to know that, forty-five years since the release of the band’s first album, their impact is still being felt so far from home and to such an extent.
A point not lost, clearly, on Donald Fagen, who appears to be in decent humour as he saunters onto the vast stage – wielding a melodica like a spoil of battle – at Dublin’s 3 Arena and whose positive demeanour develops as the show catches fire. He appears to be genuinely taken by the response to tonight’s best-of set which, as you’d expect, often veers off of its expected course and in which much of Steely Dan’s canon remains unwrapped. ‘Pretzel Logic’ is untouched, they barely dip into the ‘Katy Lied’ elpee, there’s no ‘Rikki’ and, instead, they do a pair of cuts from ‘The Nightfly’ – ‘Green Flower Street’ and ‘New Frontier’ – a formidable ‘Godwhacker’ and a Joe Tex cover.
The two big video screens flanking the stage capture Fagen throughout in close-up, towelling the sweat from his head and wiping his prescription shades clear of fog. He never references the late Walter Becker by name, referring twice instead to ‘my partner’ but, as has been the case throughout the current tour, the band performs ‘Book Of Liars’ from Becker’s 1994 solo album, ‘11 Tracks Of Whack’ by way of a tribute to Fagen’s long-time side-kick, who died in September.
But there’s a name-check later for David Palmer, the band’s one-time vocalist who took the lead on ‘Dirty Work’, back on Steely Dan’s 1972 debut, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’. That mighty cut is performed tonight, as it’s been for many years, by the group’s imperious backing vocalists, The Danettes, and is a real stand-out among many.
Those considered, layered female harmonies have long distinguished much of Steely Dan’s best work, regularly sitting at the heart of their material and not, as can often be the case, as mere decoration or after- thought. And tonight they serve a more practical purpose too :- Fagen has forever been a distinctive vocalist but he’s never been a comfortable one and, closing in on seventy now, deftly deflects the top registers side-stage, from where The Danettes regularly escort him home.
Elsewhere, the four-way brass section – alto and tenor saxes, trumpet and trombone – add girth to the ragtime and jazz aspects of the set and also sit tidily into the bigger picture, even if all twelve musicians on stage often make like they’re all working in isolation. Which is another long-time Steely Dan trait :- the busy arrangements have always been carefully plotted – the more clinical aspects of their sound have always been a critical bugbear – and Becker and Fagen are among the most formidable structural architects in the history of contemporary music. For better and, often, for worse.
But backed by an exceptional band, among which guitarist Jon Herington – the definitive New York City blade – drummer Keith Carlock, bassist Freddie Washington and backing vocalist Carolyn Leonhart have been long-time side-kicks, Steely Dan counter the coldness of the venue quickly, which is no mean feat, and also just about defy the vagaries of the in-house sound system, which can often take on a life of its own.
They sign off with ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ – by a distance the closest to concession they get all night – and which, fully-revved and loaded, brings a deserved ovation from a full-house that, one suspects, was won over long before the band had even taken the stage.
In the twenty-odd since Steely Dan last played in Dublin, the area that surrounds the venue, deep in the city’s docklands, has changed beyond all recognition :- the container depots and the cargo huts are dwarfed now by the dominant cut of contemporary architecture, every new structure a statement piece. Given the prominence of chrome, metal supports, clean design lines and glass fronts on the long walk down from the city centre, there’s a Steely Dan metaphor on every block.
Because I’m certain I’ve never seen such a breadth of ambition on any live stage previously :- the closest I can recall by way of comparison is Prefab Sprout’s show in the same venue in December, 1990, when that band’s core line-up was suitably enhanced as they toured the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ album. But not even that performance, memorable as it was, comes anywhere close in terms of the sheer scale of delivery and the scope of aspiration that hallmarks tonight’s. Which was stellar, spellbinding stuff from the off and if, as you’d imagine, many of us are unlikely to see Steely Dan live again, a remarkable farewell.
As I sit hear reading your piece listening to my vinyl copy of ” can’t buy a thrill ” bought all those years ago , 10 or so days after the gig I pinch myself to make sure yes I was really at the gig and saw Steely Dan . When we bought Lp s in the 70 s , for 99 % of the acts we never thought for a moment that we would see live the bands that made these wonderous sounds
Being too young to have appreciated Steely Dan in their early days, I was also alerted to Donald Fagen through The Nightfly and New Frontier. Shamefully, at one time. I used Steely Dan as a stick with which to beat older `muso’ friends while I sought out what was currently fashionable. They’re kind enough not to hold it against me years later.
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Wonderful review. Aja was a game-changer for me in the sixth grade, as a young drummer and a kid who wasn’t into the Foghat and Boston that my friends were listening to. I never caught Steely Dan live, though I did see an amazing Fagen solo show just a few weeks before Becker died. He played several cuts off of The Nightfly — a real thrill, as I love that record as much as the Dan’s best.