The most striking thing about Saturday’s show at Verizon Arena was how it affirmed the reputations of Steve Winwood and Steely Dan. Winwood left the stage as the underrated workhorse hero of the night. Steely Dan’s two-hour set of literate jerk-jazz-rock was great, no doubt, but would have been really extraordinary had Walter Becker bothered to show up to the gig instead of souring the set with his apathy.
Winwood crunched through an hour revue of his varied, decades-long catalog, bookending his set with “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’ ” — one could be forgiven for forgetting that these two mountains of song didn’t exist before the reedy British gentleman on stage made them — while touching on his psychedelic/proggy past in Traffic (“The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys”), his British blues excellence in Blind Faith (“Can’t Find My Way Home,” another standard from the deep Winwood songbook), and, lest anyone forget that he’s a vice admiral in the Yacht Rock Navy, “Higher Love.” His voice was incredibly strong, and it was a joy seeing his instrumental chops still intact as he bounced back and forth from organ to guitar, not shying away from ripping it up on either one.
So it would be reasonable to expect Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the terrible twins of Steely Dan, to bring it as well, right? No doubt, Donald Fagen held it down behind the electric piano, handling vocals and front-man duties with an atypical joy, still relishing twisting his iconic, caustic lyrics around in his big bass mouth. Although longtime Dan pianist Jim Beard handled the heavy keys on the Steinway tucked rear stage, Fagen still found the energy and presence of mind to pepper in the occasional great and tasteful fill on his keys.
On the other hand, Becker, still coke-bloated from the ’70s, did little else but disappoint. One of the most inventive guitarists in rock history, the man who brought insane jazz voicings to rock music (I mean, his impossible chords look more like chemical equations than chord names, all D#minor11-sus9-aug13/Eb fourth position or whatever), he just couldn’t be bothered to do much more than absent-mindedly flick at his bottom two strings, playing through a barely-audible amp. (When Becker finally turned up to bring an amazing, Bird-evoking solo to “Pretzel Logic” in the encore, it stung more than it wowed.)
If that weren’t insult enough, Salty Uncle Walty expended the most energy when he took the mic for a couple of minutes to insult all the barefoot Dixieland yokels (“when you go back to your Hondo town or gypsy caravan”) that paid serious bucks to see him play guitar, then made everyone sit through his vocals on “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More,” Steely Dan’s most sub-Ringo song. Much side-eye was thrown by the audience, deservedly.
That said, the band’s eight-piece backing band and the Danettes, its three back-up singers, provided the incredible muscle of the night. Infinite praise is due to Jon Herington, too, the guitarist who amazed throughout the night in Becker’s emotional absence.
Also worthy of a real rave: the setlist itself. Even without the usually dependable Dan performances of “Rikki,” “Deacon Blues” and this writer’s personal favorite, “FM,” the band tore through a night of hits with minimal deep-cut indulgences (see: The Cure’s summer setlists). “Bodhisattva” was a monster live, propelled by the brass section behind the bandstand, and “Hey Nineteen” turned the sardonic synths of the original into a hard bop powerhouse. Trading lead verses for “Dirty Work,” the Danettes shined, feminizing the ironic masculine vulnerability of the original cut. Between “Black Cow,” “Peg,” and “Kid Charlemagne,” Steely Dan made a nice case for being the definitive uber-nerdy white dudes responsible for some of the highest points in the history of hip-hop. (Along with Kraftwerk, of course.)
Qualms aside, The Dan and the Dan Backing Band put on a strong show for any outfit that’s been going strong for 45 years, and the bad was way outweighed by the truly great. Donald Fagen is a living legend and, well, maybe next time they can send a Walter Becker cardboard cutout in his place.