LIVE: Steely Dan/Steve Winwood @ SPAC, 7/10/16

Review by Steve Nover

I would like to think one can be bias-free at a concert where you love both acts, but it’s not easy.

I’ve been a fan of Steve Winwood throughout his 50-year career, and he bookended his show by going back to the beginning. At the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, he began his one-hour set with the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” and closed his too-short set with “Gimme Some Lovin'” – the band’s two Top 10 U.S. hits. (They were even bigger in England, where “Keep on Running” hit No. 1, enabling the 16-year-old Winwood to buy a Hammond B-3 organ.)

Traffic was Winwood’s next band, and after a one-album side-trip to Blind Faith, he returned to reform Traffic. The SPAC audience was treated to a beautiful version of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” (with Winwood on guitar) and three Traffic numbers, beginning with “Pearly Queen” featuring tasty solos by Winwood on organ. Guitarist Jose Neto and flute player also supplied fireworks on sax for most of the set and took over the organ on Winwood’s two forays on guitar – the other being “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”

I wasn’t familiar with “At Times We Do Forget” (from his 2008 album Nine Lives), but it was perfect for these times: “Well, truth is an empty word / Spoken in vain, yeah, like we all do / Blind hate the modern way / But every life has a beautiful name…”

“The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” was a crowd favorite, as the percussionist, who mostly played congas, switched to bongos. Winwood also revved up “Higher Love” from his ’86 comeback – No. 1 hit, 22 weeks on the chart – though Chaka Khan did not turn up to duet.

Winwood and his fellow Traffic bandmates were close with Jimi Hendrix and played with him on his ’68 Electric Ladyland. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when Winwood & Co. launched into the Band of Gypsys’ “Them Changes.”

I should add that Winwood received five enthusiastic standing ovations – especially for his two guitar solos on “Dear Mr. Fantasy” – far more than the headliner.

On their The Dan Who Knew Too Much Tour, Steely Dan hit the SPAC stage minus Becker & Fagen for their opening instrumental selection, “November Afternoon,” but the bandleaders soon entered to a big welcome from the crowd and launched into “Black Cow,” complete with three background singers all dressed in black. That song from ’77’s Aja was followed by the beautiful title track and late in the set two more of its other gems back-to-back – “Josie” and “Peg.”

Throughout the night it was a simple formula; Donald Fagen sang most of the songs with the background singers (who should be called foreground singers since they add more than in any band I can think of…) and then let the great musicians who comprise the band give gorgeous solos that take your breath away.

Though the crowd didn’t quite show the Dan the same kind of love as they bestowed upon Winwood, they certainly responded, and there were indeed many high peaks, one being “Kid Charlemagne” about the famous Frisco chemist (and builder of Grateful Dead’s wall of sound) Owsley Stanley, who passed away 5 years ago. Perhaps his daughter, who lives in Albany, was in attendance.

It’s been many years since Steely Dan was a real band rather than a partnership of two bolstered by some of the finest studio musicians, since that is often required of their complex arrangements. Walter Becker more than once said that this is the greatest fucking band we’ve ever toured with, and though I’ve only seen them perform a few times, I certainly wouldn’t dispute that.

Their ’72 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill supplied “Reeling in the Years” and “Dirty Work,” and they also ratcheted up the popular “My Old School” (about Bard College ) and “Bodhisattva” from Countdown to Ecstacy, which was released a year later.

Arguably no pop band has ever had such a depth of jazz influences – they even recorded a Duke Ellington instrumental on ’74’s Pretzel Logic – but their clever and unusual lyrics and subject matter definitely put them in the pop category.

On their third song of the wonderful night “Hey Nineteen,” Fagen sang, “Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin / She don’t remember the Queen of Soul / It’s hard times befallen the sole survivors / She thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just growing old…”

We were treated to “Black Friday” and “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More” from ’75’s Katy Lied. And perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was a Joe Tex cover, “I Want To (Do Everything for You).”

Throughout the set, all four horn players shone, and Fagen’s voice was in fine form.

After Becker and Fagen exited the stage, the band performed the TV theme “The Untouchables,” sounding like The Tubes. A glorious and memorable evening…

November Afternoon (Donald Byrd & Booker Little) (backing band only)
Black Cow
Hey Nineteen
Black Friday
The Caves of Altamira
Kid Charlemagne
Two Against Nature
Dirty Work
Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More
I Want To (Do Everything for You) (Joe Tex cover)
My Old School
Reelin’ in the Years
Pretzel Logic
The Untouchables (Nelson Riddle) (backing band only)

I’m a Man (The Spencer Davis Group)
Pearly Queen (Traffic)
At Times We Do Forget
Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith)
Them Changes (Buddy Miles)
The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (Traffic)
Higher Love
Dear Mr. Fantasy (Traffic)
Gimme Some Lovin’ (The Spencer Davis Group)

  1. Bill says

    Steely Dan had the best horn section I’ve ever seen. Kid Charlemagne and Bodhisattva wow I was a happy guy. And Steve Winwood was better than his concert in the 80’s. Show of the year at SPAC I expect. Can’t say I’ve seen them all but I know an EMT who has seen most shows there and agrees.

  2. Leo Purvis says

    Nice review Steve….it was a fine show that brought back a flood of memories.

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