Pop live: They're back, Jack

Steely Dan reeled in the years at Wembley this week with surprising keenness. Giles Smith just reeled
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The Independent Culture
"I hope they do 'All Around My Hat'," a voice said on the way in. A joke, almost certainly. (The American jazz-rock group Steely Dan are not to be confused with the British folk group Steeleye Span. Not under any circumstances.) Then again, it has been a long time.

One could easily have formed the impression, over the last quarter of a century or so, that touring was not high among Steely Dan's priorities. Walter Becker's sleeve notes for the recent live album recall, with limited enthusiasm, such on-the-road experiences as "being trapped in dressing rooms with alcoholic Brits and scary blues bands from Texas" and "spitting take-out meat and milkshake on the walls of overlit elevators". The fact the band abandoned live performance in 1974 is another clue. Concerts were one of the first things Becker and his partner Donald Fagen grew tired of, followed shortly afterwards by press interviews and finally, in 1980, each other.

But time moves on, wounds heal and bank managers become more insistent. In 1993, after tinkering with each other's solo albums, Becker and Fagen reformed Steely Dan for an American tour and apparently enjoyed it almost as much as the crowds. At any rate, they scheduled two more and a European leg, the Art Crimes tour, now under way. On Monday, they arrived at Wembley Arena, greeted rapturously by a full house, possibly the oldest there, on average, since the Streisand shows or the Royal Tournament - people who never imagined they would get to hear "Bad Sneakers", "Hey 19" and almost the whole of the Aja album cooked up on a stage, let alone witness the implausible spectacle of people called Donald and Walter cutting it as stadium rock stars.

Fagen, 48, wearing shades, a dark suit and a recently acquired grizzled beard, and thumping chords out of an electric piano, did his best Ray Charles impression, swaying so wildly his head would fall to the level of the keys. Occasionally, he would apply himself to one of those strap- on keyboards made popular in the Seventies by Earth Wind & Fire, and go for faintly unsatisfying walks in front of the drum-riser. Becker, 46, on guitar, mostly static in stone-washed jeans and trainers, would easily have held down a job in Silicon Valley if the music hadn't taken off.

"We're going to continue with a song from some other album back there in the Seventies," Fagen said, introducing "Green Earrings". All of his and Becker's remarks were as dry and dismissive as this, belying the keenness with which they turned themselves to the music: "Black Cow", "Kid Charlemagne", "Reelin' in the Years", an impeccably mournful "Deacon Blues". Even the hits "Rikki Don't Lose that Number" and "Do It Again", omitted from the American tour because the band couldn't think of a way to rekindle their interest in them, were present here, lent new twists. This is the crucial advantage of a Steely Dan show: there's no question of them disappointing the crowd by concentrating on new material. In fact, there was just one new composition, "Jack of Speed", which kept the horn section busy and suggested that the proposed new Steely Dan studio album will be worth what will doubtless be an exceptionally long wait.

Wembley Arena is to quality sound reproduction what Cilla Black is to competitive angling. Here, though, was a sound system crisp enough to distinguish the details and even to provide that rarity of the arena show, an audible piano. Behind Walter and Donald stood an almost completely different line-up from the one which appeared on the first two American tours. The music of Steely Dan was, notoriously, hard-won in studios over punishing periods of time and it was a shock to discover there was even one set of musicians alive that could render that material in sparkly detail, with its tricky harmonies and problematic key-shifts and, above all, its locked-down grooves. Now we must accept there are two.

For the most part, the audience remained politely rooted to its seats, only rising for the encores - "Don't Take Me Alive" and "My Old School". But why not? This is music which rewards concentration. The man who, during "Glamour Profession", came down to the front and began to dance, was removed by two stewards. Good thing, too. Where on earth did he think he was? A Steeleye Span concert?