Wembley SSE Arena, February 25, 2019
When innocently asking Donald Fagan ‘What is a pretzel?’ he smiled and kindly drew an outline of the tasty morsel on my trusty note book. How else would I know a pretzel was a type of baked bread shaped into a twisted knot?
Logically speaking, I should have been aware of them on sale on the streets of New York during my visits in the early Seventies. But we innocent British visitors were more used to bread pudding and donuts in those days and simply failed to recognise the significance of the barrow loads of curious snacks for sale on the streets of Manhattan.
It all became clear in 1974 when I met Donald in London to discuss Steely Dan’s third studio album Pretzel Logic. He was pleased that I’d noted the track East St.Louis Toodle Oo was a Duke Ellington composition dating from the 1920s. Donald and Walter Becker had done a brilliant instrumental treatment of the unusual arrangement and proudly sent a copy to the Duke for his consideration. Sadly, he made no reply. This was a shame as the young West Coast musicians were helping to introduce Ellington’s music to a new generation.
Steely Dan went on to become one of the hottest and most inventive bands of the decade. It remains a singularly powerful force in music. I remembered the Pretzel Incident while fighting my way through the thousands of fans trying to gain entrance to Wembley Arena in the hope of seeing Donald and his newest version of the hallowed group at their London concert.
Once past all the security checks and long queues for beer, hot dogs and toilets (no pretzels on sale as far as I could see), it was time to settle into one of those rows of seats positioned sideways on to the stage. Great view of the people sitting opposite, but much neck craning to spot the artists reduced to tiny specks on the far side of a cavernous building better suited to housing dirigible airships. (Thinks: Take binoculars if you want to see the stage at Wembley).
Steve Winwood was the special guest and it was great to see Steve with a fine backing band, singing with all his old passion and playing lots of lead guitar as well has a trusty Hammond organ.
He was well into Can’t Find My Way Home from the 1969 Blind Faith album by the time I’d found my way home to the correct seat on a bench just under the roof. Clutching a light blue Fender Strat (according to an eagle eyed friend), he delivered the kind of solo that delighted Eric Clapton when the pair jammed together at the Marquee back in the Sixties.
Memories of Traffic were aroused by a slow and funky The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys (1971) complete with a sax solo that honoured the memory of the late Chris Wood.
WINWOOD WINS AGAIN
A great delight for all Winwood fans came when he stomped into a fuzz boxed Keep On Runnin’. A Number One hit for the Spencer Davis Group featuring S. Winwood Esq. in January 1966, I remember when it toppled the Beatles’ double A side hit Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out.
Nice to see a young couple dancing in the aisles when Steve moved into Eighties mode for Higher Love a hit single from Back In The High Life. Powerful drumming, nifty percussion and brassy stabs made it all seem like a big band in action. Back to Traffic for Dear Mr. Fantasy and the SDG for Gimme Some Lovin’ another Top 5 from 1966, all greeted with cheers, whistles and applause that literally rang from the rafters.
COUNT DOWN TO ECSTACY
Okay, now it was pretzel time with a half hour break before Steely Dan assumed command of the distant stage. However, I had to make do with a plastic bottle of lager, before mounting the steep ascent back to my eyrie. Even if the view was not so hot (was that Donald Fagan sitting behind some kind of carpenter’s bench?) the sound and lighting was excellent. With my ear trumpet perfectly attuned it was possible to detect a barrage of signals from outer space.
A jazzy instrumental Cubano Chant featured the brass section and gave Mike Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone) , Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax) and Roger Rosenberg (baritone) a chance to blow some heated solo exchanges.
This was followed by Bodhisattiva from 1973’s Count Down To Ecstasy a lively, handclapping number from Mr. Fagan, now bursting into song and performing keyboard magic. Hey 19 with its hypnotic back beat was further heated by Jon Herington’s tempestuous lead guitar.
Black Friday from Katy Lied (1975) was sheer Steely Dan-ism. Here was an all-American band sustaining the faultless perfection and power only professionals can achieve. As the programme progressed with kaleidoscopic layers of themes and tonal effects, I thought of the band’s musical ancestors, the Woody Herman Orchestra perhaps or Stan Kenton’s equally tumultuous brass ensembles of the 1940s and 1950s.
But musings aside, here came a surprise. Little Stevie Winwood, as Donald introduced him, came on stage to join the band for a raunchy Pretzel Logic. “I hate following Steve Winwood – because he’s so good,” confessed the band’s chief vocalist. Steve applied all his vocal expertise to the raunchy tune, backed by those marvellous girl singers The Danettes.
After this interlude Donald ordered his road crew to: “Get rid of the dinosaur,” hopefully referring to the antique Hammond organ, before counting in Aja, hotly pursued by Green Earrings from The Royal Scam (1976).
MORE DIRTY WORK – OH YEAH!
“Remember when records had two sides?” he asked earnestly. “Who cares?” Well indeed, let’s get on with the show Donald and play Black Cow also from Aja (1977) and herded in with some raucous trombone. The irresistibly charming Time Out of Mind from Gaucho (1980) was pursued by Dirty Work from Can’t Buy A Thrill an album that stayed on the MM’s office record player for weeks back in 1972. Pardon us while we join in the chorus…“I’m a fool to do your dirty work – oh yeah!”
Peg was a delight for all those who remember the Jay Gradon original guitar solo and so was Josie from Aja with its haunting chordal intro. Throughout this extraordinary song packed show Keith Carlock’s drumming was a wonder to behold. Donald Fagan called him The World’s Greatest Drummer and that would be difficult to challenge in any informed argument. After all – Keith is playing with one of the world’s greatest bands.