Survival of the cleverest

Steely Dan | Wembley Arena, London
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The Independent Culture

And so to Wembley, that pearl among venues, for an evening of jazzin' rock in a polished FM style, classic gems, and wit and sagacity. It's a fairly rare event. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen never much liked performing. Cynical and ferociously intelligent, they initially planned just to write but when, as sullen youths, they presented themselves at pop-song mecca the Brill Building in the late Sixties, no one really got their stuff - its hipster humour and already world-weary lyrics were too hard to file.

And so to Wembley, that pearl among venues, for an evening of jazzin' rock in a polished FM style, classic gems, and wit and sagacity. It's a fairly rare event. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen never much liked performing. Cynical and ferociously intelligent, they initially planned just to write but when, as sullen youths, they presented themselves at pop-song mecca the Brill Building in the late Sixties, no one really got their stuff - its hipster humour and already world-weary lyrics were too hard to file.

Transported to the West Coast office, their sensibilities were understood even less, so they picked out a band name to their taste (a Japanese dildo from Burroughs' Naked Lunch) and performed the stuff themselves. Their first album, Can't Buy A Thrill, confounded executives and established them instantly, flying right in the face of the peace 'n' love movement with tracks such as "Only A Fool Would Say That" ("I heard it was you/Talkin' 'bout a world where all is free/It just couldn't be..."). They toured until third LP Pretzel Logic, when stage fright got the better of them and they threw in the towel, with just one or two hallmark exceptions.

They're here Saturday tonight partly to deliver outtakes from the recent Two Against Nature comeback but though, at 50 and 52 respectively, they seem easier with the deal, they're still as buttoned-down as they ever were. Or at least Becker is. Rick Wakeman-type locks long gone, and sporting wire-rimmed glasses, much facial hair and an ill-fitting suit, he plays guitar with the stern concentration of a malevolent doctor about to deliver bad news. (But he's sharp on the band intros: "Ted Baker on piano. Not to be confused with the Ted Baker of London, who I believe is a clothier.") Fagen seems looser. Sitting at the keyboards and singing in his cool, nasal sneer, he's skinny as a rattlesnake, his lower jaw clapping up and down toward his hooked nose like Jim Henson's Gonzo.

All around them, the 11-strong band is cooking. Session men with illustrious backgrounds and three lush chicks on vocals embark on every number with the passion and precision Becker and Fagen so famously drill into them. "Bodhisattva" (another indictment of "truth-seeking") cruises like a runaway train; "Hey 19", with its blues guitar, sinuous sax, Fagen's airy, literate jazz fingering and the girls' honeyed vocals, conjures West Coast sunsets and a guy who won't believe a 19-year-old is too young ("No, we can't talk at all, make tonight a wonderful thing"). There's a 15-minute break (this is a two-and-a-half-hour set) then a return with more tales of the self-deceiving. "Cousin Dupree", a down-home story of would-be incest, shows Fagen's voice can slide from compassionate to cruel in a minute. "Peg" - such a homely title for a blend of complex, glamorous grooves - is light as helium.

Downside? There are a few extended jams that cause a yawn and, hey, there was no "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number" or "Reelin' In The Years". On the whole, though, just what we came for. The sign-off by Fagen - "It's Hammersmith tomorrow, if anyone's interested" - is too modest by half.

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