Steely Dan @ Birmingham NIA – 29th June 2009


I am a big Steely Dan fan. I think Fagen and Becker are amongst the greatest songwriters of our generation, who are often overlooked and underrated. Their recorded work of the 1970’s is timeless, edgy, well-crafted and beautifully produced, the albums that followed that along with Fagen’s solo work is clever and polished. I suppose you are waiting for a but… well I guess there is: I am not convinced this genius translates especially well to the stage. And I think this is purely to do with the simple fact that it is all too perfect and too effortless. A strange criticism you may think, but after 2 hours of listening to a perfect machine hum, my ears were searching for a human element.


After a jazz-influenced introduction by the 7 piece band, the 2 members of Steely Dan join the backing band (along with 3 backing singers) and crawl into what initially sounds like an extension of the freeform jazz that welcomed them on stage, added to only by some beautiful backing vocals. It is only into the chorus that I pick out the words ‘Reelin in the years’ and realise that they have slowed down and rearranged this normally bouncy pop classic. My heart sinks as I consider I might be back at that Bob Dylan gig a few months back, where he rearranged every song until they were almost unrecognisable. However, my fears are unfounded and the remainder of the set remains unmolested.


The musicianship throughout is unquestionably outstanding, but that is not surprising as Fagen and Becker have based their careers on not only being the finest, but ensuring that all their guest musicians are of a similar standard. Tonight is no exception, and after a quiet beginning, the second guitarist (Becker is obviously number one) bursts into the signature guitar solos that are splashed across the Steely Dan history: and they are better than perfect. The obligatory ‘everyone gets a solo whether it is in the song or not’ becomes slightly annoying as the set progresses, as if the audience need reminding how great everyone is. This annoyance is compounded by the lighting engineer’s instructions to throw a white spotlight on anyone who starts a solo, regardless of how fleeting the musical section is. After 2 hours of these lighting cues, I got the feeling they felt that an audience required assistance on which musician is currently playing, as if we could not work out a trumpet from a sax solo. Furthermore the lighting instructions must have been set in stone because in the chorus of ‘My Old School’, the house lights came up, expecting to see a wild audience screaming out ‘And I’m never going back to my old schooooool’. But no, it just highlighted the fact that a few thousand middle-aged people were caught like a collective rabbit in headlights, me included I hasten to add. Looking at the set list for the American part of the tour later, it seems that this track was an encore, so perhaps the lighting cues were more suited to a more warmed up

The set list speaks for itself. Exceptional songs from a career spanning 4 decades, all played faultlessly. Fagen’s vocals are as crusty and soulful as ever and from behind his keyboard, with shades hiding his eyes, he looked and moved more like Ray Charles than a 61 year old, middle-class white man. But man he is swinging. And apart from a few times when he walks around the stage with his melodica, this is all we get from the pair. I don’t think this is surprising as after all, they began life out of the spotlight as session musicians and only became international megastars based on their gift for crafting some of the best songs the world has seen. They always seem slightly uncomfortable on a stage, particularly Becker who sings only once on ‘Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More’, and seems relieved when he can step back out of the spotlight.


As always with gigs by artists who have an enormous back catalogue, you wait and wait for your favourite tracks and are inevitably disappointed. Tonight is no exception as ‘The Royal Scam’ album is all but forgotten, until the very end when ‘Kid Charlemagne’ bursts onto the stage. It is worth the wait as it is glorious, but part of me is wishing that someone would play a wrong note, or Fagen would have to stop the band as he forgot the lyrics, or someone would scream, or Becker would smash his guitar. But no, it is all very restrained, very proper, very professional. Just like their albums, and I guess you either like or don’t like the music of Steely Dan, but something inside we is wishing on the way home, that they give something more on stage than a perfect reproduction of their recorded work. Their songs are always particularly insightful concerning the human condition, yet they seem incapable of revealing much about themselves. For me this is always a highlight of any live show, the connection between people: between artist and audience. Steely Dan did not connect with me on an emotional level, it all seemed very intellectual and sadly, sterile.

Set List
Reelin’ in the Years
Time Out of Mind
Show Biz Kids
My Old School
Bad Sneakers
Two Against Nature
Black Friday
Hey Nineteen
Parker’s Band
Babylon Sisters
Glamour Profession
Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More
Deacon Blues
Love is Like an Itching In My Heart – Band Intros
Encore: FM
Kid Charlemagne

Review – Alan Neilson
Photos – Andy Whitehouse

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8 thoughts on “Steely Dan @ Birmingham NIA – 29th June 2009

  1. sorry about the pictures folks,I had to sstand by the desk and the lighting guy was a pain up the proverbial,he couldn’t see the stage because I was in the way!!!! so I had to move to the side,the lighting was crap aswell.I was ready to leave after they ruined Reelin(2nd song in),my favourite Dan song,I get a bit pissed with bands who totally change arrangements of classic songs,leave them alone,people want to here the songs as they remember them.£50 a ticket???? I don’t think so.I was glad to kicked out after the 3rd song.

  2. considering how fair away from the stage you were Andy, i’d say these pics are pretty good. That lighting techie ruined the show for me as well. Talk about spoiling any mood the band was trying to creat, it was as if he thought he should have had a lighting solo!
    anyone else who attended feel any different? I would be interested to know whether anyone agrees with my review or not; I did have very mixed feelings.

  3. you guys must have been at a different concert. they were so good in london i went to se them in paris next night. no pleasing some ppl!

  4. When I say to people I went to see Steely Dan last night the usual response is Steely who? And that sums up steely dan the performance was like saville row suit a well cut professional and conservative peformance I did not expect anything else and I’m sure nobody else did 9/10 for me

  5. Loved it, even though I was soaked through by the monsoon. Never seen them b4 despite being a fan since 1974, then went to see them in Perugia last weekend, which being outdoors (and the fact I was in the 2nd row rather than the back row) meant that was a better gig for me. Especially at the end when everyone rushed forward and started dancing, if only it had been like that all through, I hate seated concerts. But the missing piece for me was ‘Rikki dont lose that number’. But the slow Reeling in the Years was amazing, a highlight.

  6. I think your review is generous. My brother & I drove a collective 400 miles for this gig – both lifelong fans since the mid-70’s & first time seeing them live. What a crashing disappointment – not helped by our seats up towards the back but a good performing band should be able to reach out and engage you in a venue that size (although they should use stage-side screens at a venue the size of NIA). Where I was sat this was a sterile performance from tired middle-aged men to a similarly bored and uninspired looking audience. A terrible shame and a lot of money. It was like listening to Steely Dan CD’s with the added frisson of someone in front of me farting right stinkers every few minutes. Unheard of for me but we walked out before the end. Compare with Blur at Hyde Park a few days later – pure energy and a fantastic show. And wasn’t that cringing speaking part by WB excruciating during Hey Nineteen? AAAAAGH!!!!!

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