Steve Winwood & Steely Dan, Vector Arena, Auckland, Nov. 4, 2011

Twenty-four hours after the New Zealand Music Awards held their annual bash at Auckland’s Vector Arena; the place was full again, this time with a more mature and more sober crowd.

Steely Dan last played here in September of 2007. That show found the band concentrating on their later output (Aja and Gaucho) and eschewing many of their biggest hits. This time around was different.

The evening started with a 30 minute set by Anika Moa and her band, although, sadly I missed all but her final song, as she took the stage at 6:30 as was off by 7.

Steve Winwood and his 4-piece band took the stage, almost unnoticed, just before 7:30, with the lights still up in the arena. This unassuming start to the set began with a version of I’m A Man, originally recorded by Winwood when he was with the Spencer Davis Group back in 1967. The band consisted of a drummer (Richard Bailey) and percussionist (Kafe), Jose Neto on guitar and Paul Booth who played sax, flute, clarinet and keyboards. Winwood himself sat behind a Hammond B-3 organ (he also played guitar during the set).

At age 63, Steve Winwood sounds and looks as good as ever. His stripped down band (no bass player and no synths) seemed tailor-made to play his earlier material, and that’s just what they did. With the exception of two songs from his most recent solo album, 2009’s Nine Lives, and his 1986 hit, Higher Love, the songs came from the late 60s and early 70s when Winwood was a member of the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith.

Winwood first came out from behind his organ to play guitar on Can’t Find My Way Home, the song he recorded in 1969 with Eric Clapton and Blind Faith. Then, after playing some tasty guitar on Dirty City, from Nine Lives, Steve returned to the B-3 and settled in for a moody version of Traffic’s Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys which segued nicely into Empty Pages from John Barleycorn Must Die. Then came another Traffic favourite, an extended version of Light Up Of Leave Me Alone (no doubt a Don Brash request). Jose Neto’s guitar solo gave the tune a Santana vibe to it and drummer Richard Bailey finished the song off with a solo.

Higher Love was the only song played from Winwood’s most successful solo period. It sounded out of place here…the band seemed awkward making it fit their configuration. Perhaps a few gospel backing singers would have helped.

But that was the only misfire. Winwood strapped on his guitar for another Traffic tune, Dear Mr. Fantasy, and closed out his 90 minute set with Gimme Some Lovin’. The crowd was dancing in the aisles.

Thirty minutes later the core of the Steely Dan band (drums, bass, guitar, keys & 4 horns) ambled onto the stage and began jamming on an old jazz instrumental, Dizzy’s Bidness. After a few minutes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made their entrance, along with three backing vocalists. The set began with the title song from 1977’s Aja album.

The band consists of Jim Beard (keyboards), Keith Carlock (drums), Jon Herington (guitar), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), Walt Weiskopf (tenor & alto sax), Freddie Washington (bass) and Cindy Mizelle, Catherine Russell and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery (backing vocals). Fagen played electric piano and Becker electric guitar. This is pretty much the same band that played here four years ago.

Drummer Keith Carlock showed his stuff early on during Aja. A swinging version of Black Friday followed featuring piercing guitar blasts from Walter Becker. During a funky Hey Nineteen, Becker spoke to the audience, referring to the group as a rhythm and blues band and urging the crowd to stock up on T-shirts. This was followed by a suitably funky trombone solo.

After the song, it was Donald Fagan’s turn to address the crowd.  He was dressed in a black suit and sunglasses and, as he swayed behind his keyboard, he looked like a cross between Ray Charles and Dr. Strangelove.  He welcomed the fans to the “Shuffle Diplomacy” tour and then led the band through Time Out Of Mind.

Fagen’s voice has lost a bit of its power since he was last here, but he was still able to sing well enough to get by (the backing singers helped), although I did hear a bit of grousing from some fans after the show about his voice. For me, I thought he was fine.

They only played one song from either of their more recent studio albums, the title track from 2000’s Two Against Nature. Then, they returned to, what Fagen described as their “Jurassic Period”, a blaring big band version of Bodhisattva, from 1973’s Countdown To Ecstasy featuring a fine Jon Harington guitar solo.

Then came the hits…Reelin’ In The Years, Josie, Peg, Reelin’ In The Years, even Dirty Work from the first Steely Dan album, this time sung by the three backing singers, otherwise known as the “Embassy Brats”.

The regular set ended with Kid Charlemagne. When they returned for the encore, Steve Winwood’s Hammond had been brought back on and Winwood sat in for Pretzel Logic…his vocals and organ playing fitting right in with the Steely Dan sound. They all finished up with a rousing version of Jr. Walker’s (I’m A) Roadrunner.

While the band played 11 songs that they performed on their 2007 show, this one had a very different feel. In 2007, it felt like the band was playing what THEY wanted to play. Their playing sounded inspired and exciting, but some fans complained about the lack of hits.

This time around, they seemed to be here for the fans. The playing was still superb, but it was obvious that they were trying to make the crowd happy by including tunes like Reelin’ In The Years and Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.  I enjoyed both shows, possibly the 2007 show a bit more since Aja is my favourite Steely Dan album and they played all but one song from it.

But, with the addition of Steve Winwood’s excellent set and his appearance with Steely Dan, I can easily see how fans might prefer this show. After all, they got almost four hours of very good live music and heard some of the finest songs of the 60s and 70s. Not a bad deal.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to Steely Dan perform Pretzel Logic with Steve Winwood: 

Steve Winwood set list:

  1. I’m A Man
  2.  Fly
  3.  I Can’t Find My Way Home
  4. Dirty City
  5. The Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys
  6. Empty Pages
  7. Light Up Of Leave Me Alone
  8. Higher Love
  9. Dear. Mr. Fantasy
  10. Gimme Some Lovin’

Steely Dan set list:

  1. Dizzy’s Bidness (instrumental)
  2. Aja
  3. Black Friday
  4. Hey Nineteen
  5. Time Out Of Mind
  6. Two Against Nature
  7. Bodhisattva
  8. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
  9. Show Biz Kids
  10. Babylon Sisters
  11. Papa Don’t Take No Mess/Band Intros
  12. Dirty Work
  13. Green Earrings
  14. Josie
  15. Peg
  16. My Old School
  17. Reelin’ In The Years
  18. Kid Charlemagne
  19. Pretzel Logic
  20. (I’m A) Roadrunner