Having wondered if I’d ever see one of my favourite bands perform live, I’ve now been rendered dumbstruck by Steely Dan twice in sixteen months. And they’ve been every bit as magnificent on the live stage as I long imagined they might be even if, truth be told, I’d probably arrived at that conclusion well before I finally saw Donald Fagen amble on-stage in his prescription shades and big sneakers to that familiar pitch behind his electric piano.
Whether or not Steely Dan without Walter Becker is actually what it claims on the tin or, in this instance, on the vastly over-priced concert tickets, is an argument for another post. And mindful that the last man standing would rather bill tonight as a live performance by Donald Fagen And The Steely Dan Band, I’m happy to just park here and move on. So …
I remember well the in-between years during the mid-1980s when some of Cork’s thrashier, punk-derived outfits would cram fifteen or sixteen barely-formed originals and covers into spiky half-hour sets in The Underground, Mojos and The Phoenix. In the great traditions of the scene that birthed many of those groups, the more tuneless and shambling their cuts were, and the more of a rush you were in, then the more dash you cut.
Against this backdrop, Steely Dan were the antithesis of such no-frills, no skills carry-on which, on one hand, was maybe understandable enough and, on the other, made no sense whatsoever. Reared by my mother on a diet of Marianne Faithful, Glen Campbell and The Beach Boys, that sort of thing just felt a bit too obvious and over-worn. Steely Dan – and another of my favourite groups, E.L.O. – seemed to me like they’d been thrown under the bus for no other reason than because they tuned-up before they threw-up and not the other way around.
But from the tracks that Mark Cagney played regularly on the dead-zone on Radio 2 at the time, they sounded as if they had as much edge as anyone and, if you listened closely enough, were maybe more interesting than most. And their biographies, once we found them, stood that thinking up for us and then some.
Last month, Steely Dan performed eighteen songs written over the course of thirty years in just under two hours at Dublin’s 3 Arena, known from here on by the name on its birth certificate, The Point Depot. Every one of those fifteen originals and three covers was presented in note-perfect detail and decorated with dash by a magnificent big band whose names and reputations will be familiar to those who’ve completed the higher level course in Anorakarama.
Which, given the giddy carry-on in the standing section from the moment that Steve Winwood appeared on-stage to open his support set, appears to have been a compulsory requirement at the point of ticket purchase. It’s a measure of how far some of us have travelled in the three decades since those heady nights in The Phoenix, I think, that we’re so much more patient and tolerant in such situations now. Where once I abhorred the indulgences of my elders and the middle of the road, I now hear real magic in the curve. And Steely Dan do curve better than most, perhaps even moreso than the greatest contemporary songwriter of them all, Paddy McAloon.
Lose yourself during any of the cuts from ‘Aja’, or in some of the elaborate décor around much of the set and the traces are obvious. The pounding instrumental passages on ‘Bodhisattva’, for instance, might have once underlaid ‘Tiffanys’ while ‘Aja’s own coda can be chased back to ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ and to many points thereafter. And there are shades of Steely Dan’s 1973 album, ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’, in particular, on much of the broader Prefab Sprout canon, some of it subtle and some of it less so.
Indeed the only music I played for a full week before last month’s show was Donald Fagen’s 1982 elpee, ‘The Nightfly’, and Paddy McAloon’s recently re-released and re-branded ‘I Trawl The Megahertz’, a brace of formidable solo records that share much more – inspiration, ambition, spirit, execution – than one might think.
I’m happy to report that the night itself ran as smoothly as you’d expect from a band that boasts obvious leaders in every line. And there are many lines. The only obvious deviations from the script being a sound dip at the top of ‘Dirty Work’ – it wouldn’t be a costly night at The Point without erratic sound – and by Fagen’s opening address to the audience, when he seemed to think he was in London and that Ireland is in The United Kingdom. Which, given the on-going Brexit/Identity circus, drew sharp and predictable intakes from around the barn.
As on-stage indiscretions go, this is at the lower end of the register and, personally, I’d take far more umbrage at some of the exclusions from Steely Dan’s set-list. Even if that opening salvo was strangely out of character for a band not known for dud notes and who, forty-five years on, still take issue with some of the production and mixdown decisions on ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’.
Donald wouldn’t certainly be the first performer or musician to take to the stage in The Point Depot – or any of a number of other stages around the country, for that matter – who wasn’t entirely sure of his whereabouts. Indeed during the years I spent working on entertainment television strands, I encountered many of them. And while it would be wrong to breach confidences and reveal names here, its worth noting that one of those simply disappeared off of the face of the planet – having disappeared off of his face beforehand – during the short walk from the reception in RTÉ to the floor of one of our studios.
To eventually be returned to us, without a word exchanged, following a frantic city-wide search, at great expense to his record label and at serious inconvenience to a number of agencies, minutes before he was due to perform live for RTÉ One’s Saturday night audiences.
Marginally less dramatic and certainly more cost-effective was the time we recovered one poetic young swain from underneath the strawberry tree outside of the main RTÉ canteen after he’d gone to talk to it while his band completed a camera rehearsal. And anyone who has ever had the thrill of sitting down with Shaun Ryder will know that it’s protocol and practice to ask him where he is instead of how he is.
Therefore, given the vagaries of rock and roll, and having lived much of his life in a chemical coma, I’m happy to cut Donald, now aged 71, a free pass.
Those of our readers inclined towards the grotesque may have heard of the fabled night, twenty-five years ago when, on the same stage at The Point, the American singer and actor, Perry Como, took to the floor to record a special Christmas television concert in front of five thousand paying punters. Then in his eighties, the Pennsylvanian-born baritone was playing out the last stanzas of a career that began during the Second World War. Although he’d long scaled back his work commitments, he still travelled overseas once a year to tape a yearly concert show for the more public-facing American broadcasters.
Where he’d add a seasonal touch to many of his best known numbers – like ‘And I Love You So’, ‘Don’t Let The Stars Get in Your Eyes’, ‘Catch A Falling Star’ and ‘It’s Impossible’, and after which they’d be compiled onto yet another live album or a concert video. This was lucrative stuff and although Perry was already well into the Autumn of his career, he was still a decent draw. And he was a fine, fine singer.
Como was a prolific outputter too, and he clearly loved Christmas. Or certainly the rich possibilities of the Christmas market. He released almost forty studio albums, and a raft of compilations, many of which are seasonally-themed.
The fact that Christmas had been celebrated just weeks earlier and that his Dublin show, recorded in January, 1994, wasn’t due to transmit until eleven months later, gave the whole enterprise a slightly disconcerting feel. A weirdness compounded by Perry’s set-list which, as well as those festive numbers and a battery of his best-known material, also included a smattering of stage-Irish cuts, of which ‘Toora Loora Loora’ – performed as a duet with a local singer and performer called Adele King – arguably represents a career-low for the pair of them.
King, who also trades as Twink and whose potty gob and regular public set-tos have made her a long-time tabloid staple, had actually been due to perform in pantomime on another Dublin stage on the same night. She was later forced to pay compensation to the producers in The Gaiety Theatre after abandoning them – for one night only – for Perry Como, swapping slapstick for the theatre of the absurd and generating another series of memorable newspaper headlines by so doing.
In front of an audience that included the then Irish President, Mary Robinson, Como cut a frail and disconnected figure on the vast, ornate stage and struggled to navigate the running order, leaving the scene on a number of occasions for long breaks.
It took the American production team – who were using an RTE Outside Broadcast facility – over four hours to assemble the material for a show that, when cut, came in at just over eighty minutes. Indeed there are a series of edits in the final version that defy all basic film convention :- continuity went out the window after the first thirty minutes when the primary objective was to get Como onto tape, off the stage and back home in one piece. And its fair to say that the patience of the audience had been well and truly tested by the time, after midnight, when Perry kicked for the line and finally completed his set.
He’d had difficulty all night reading his script from the autocue and the opening of the show was re-recorded several times :- the singer thought he was in Colorado and, in the spirit of Spinal Tap, greeted the crowd with the line ‘Good evening, Denver’. Before being directed to re-do his link to camera by an American production executive on the end of what he called a ‘stage announcement mic’ and which he used liberally to over-ride the house public address system all night. Much to the obvious chagrin of the audience and especially, it seemed, to Adele.
Back in the real world, meanwhile, Donald Fagen is now at that point in his career where he’s mining the same seam worked by Perry Como in 1994, reeling in the years, knocking out his greatest hits in large arenas worldwide, getting older and slower in the public eye as he goes. In the unlikely event of new material – and contractual complications and the complicated legal fall-out following Walter Becker’s death may render that impossible, at any rate – Steely Dan are into the closing furlongs of the nostalgia derby. And to be fair, the band seems as comfortable with that as those who’ve paid serious coin and come out in force to see them twice now in the last year and a bit.
Unlike many of those also pounding the sentimental beat – and it can be a profitable posting – I just don’t get the sense that Steely Dan are simply going through the motions ;- indeed they may be genetically prohibited from doing so. Drummer Keith Carlock, for instance, gives such a frenetic performance behind the traps – from the lead bars of Ray Bryant’s latino-fused show-opener, ‘Cubano Chant’ onwards – that you’d wonder if he was summoned for a mandatory head injury assessment at the conclusion of the show ?
And yet for all of that, and after the familiar stomp of ‘My Old School’ and ‘Reeling In The Years’ dip the night for the line, you might wonder if this, actually, is it ? If, for the band, for us, we’ve all just reached that point where, like Perry Como, it doesn’t really matter if we’re in Dublin, Denver or London because, ultimately, with another box ticked and another year down, we all arrive at the same place eventually ? And although an ocean of cool may – or may not ? – separate Steely Dan, Perry Como, Adele King and the snotty-noses in The Phoenix, the space in the dark of the night and the merciless march of time is basically the same for all of us.
Fascinating piece with fabulous writing rich in wit and detail as always x
Thanks so much, Keeley. You’re very, very kind. Hoping all is well with you and your own work. Colm
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