Rant’n’Roll: Steve Winwood and Steely Dan Provide The Countdown to Ecstasy

Holmdel, NJ—The 100-degree temperature permeated the sides of the open-aired PNC Bank Arts Center to the point where during Steve Winwood’s epochal set—of Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Blind Faith and solo hits—we wandered like Jews in the desert searching for shade. They say the music you grew up with still stay for with you forever, etched into your soul like a tattoo of the brain. They’re right, for when Winwood and band did “Dear Mr. Fantasy” as a 10-minute jam, even the sun took a break as the hippie vibe gave me goosebumps.

Switching between the luscious sound of the Hammond B-3 organ and electric guitar, Winwood, who plays every instrument known to man, went from “I’m A Man,” “Can’t Find My Way Home,” “Higher Ground” and “Pearly Queen” to the song that made him famous: he first sang “Gimme Some Loving” as a 17-year-old in 1966. I was 15. It hit #7. I asked my mom to buy it for me at Alwick’s Record Supermarket in Elizabeth. To hear him, at 67, still hit every note, thrilled my 65-year-old soul. (Kudos to Steely Dan for picking such great opening acts. Last year at the same venue, it was Elvis Costello.) The outpouring of love from the Jersey crowd must have made him feel good as he accepted an elongated standing-O before the sun came back out to continue its scorched-earth dominance on us all.

With the sun down, a coolness magically greeted the Steely Dan big-band prior to the entrance of ringmaster Donald Fagen. Man, they were pumping away with that four-piece horn section, swinging like the Woody Herman Orchestra on Donald Byrd’s “November Afternoon” instrumental as Fagen entered stage-left, gave a nod to his partner-in-crime Walter Becker and proceeded to be in fine voice (up to that point, I was holding my breath because as Fagen’s voice goes, so goes the Dan) for such favorites as “Black Cow,” “Aja,” “Hey 19,” “Black Friday,” “Kid Charlemagne,” “Show Biz Kids,” “Bodhisattva” and “Josie” (our favorite song of the night).

As per every single Dan show I’ve ever seen (9), the sound was pluperfect, the stage setting awash in the kind of lights that add not only color but drama, the jamming ecstatic, the colored girls oohing and ahhing and Fagen smiling that hipster’s grin of his while adding funky little fills on a number of instruments. Fagen has to be considered at this point a cross between Jack Kerouac and Ray Charles. He moves like Ray. He writes like Jack (both prose and the poetry of his lyrics). Plus, he’s an inscrutable curmudgeon who I’d actually be scared to meet fearing he’d bite my head off if I so much as ask the wrong question.

Walter Becker is another story entirely. We all love Walter. We really do. But we don’t know why. He’s sorta become something of an after-thought. He’s just there. He slows down the show with his elongated band intros (done to the sublime cover of Joe Tex’s “I Want To Do Everything For You”). His stories make the show practically come to a dead stop like a baseball pitcher who takes forever to throw the damn ball. Guitar solos would be better served by letting Jon Herington (one of the finest guitarists of his generation) do them all. Plus, he ruins “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More” by singing lead. But we love Walter because he’s Walter and no way would Steely Dan be Steely Dan without him.

The secret weapon of this band, though, has to be drummer Keith Carlock. He’s the one who makes it rock. He’s the one who provides the context for everything else. He’s so damn stop-on-a-dime worthy that you cannot take your eyes off of him. Instead of doing one big “go-to-the-bathroom” solo, his exquisite pounding is chopped into segments, offset by horn bursts or Carlock’s over-the-top ax action.

Then the horns! Oh the horns! Each one of these guys is a master of their horn be it sax, bari sax, trombone or trumpet, every one of them is a thrilling performer and when they slide-pump their way to add punctuation to Fagen’s every sentence, there is no greater rock horn section in the land. Plus, there’s plenty of jazz to go around.

“Peg,” “My Old School,” “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years” proved a fitting finale. They’ll be back with a series of shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City this October from the 12th to the 29th doing many of their CDs in their entirety depending upon the night. Rickie Lee Jones will open.