Steely Dan's basic set remained pretty constant in both choice of songs and the sequence in which they were played -- they almost invariably opened with Bodhisattva, then progressed through a nucleus of material which comprised songs from the first few albums. To wind up they would usually encore with the cover of the Angels' My Boyfriend's Back, or Becker/Fagen's own unreleased gag-rocker, Mobile Heart.
Conversely their soundcheck repertoire could be anything; one day at the Sopwith Camel in Glendale they began with The Boston Rag, then ran through Marvin Gaye's Ain't That Peculiar -- interpreting it as a fast boogie -- a brief shot of Tequila and ended with Royce Jones singing an a cappella version of the Chi-Lites' Have You Seen Her?
But although Steely Dan graduated quite quickly from opening concerts to headlining them, they didn't escape the problems to which support groups are frequently subjected.
Commenting on the East Coast leg of their 1974 U.S. tour, one journalist wrote, "Steely Dan is a band of perfectionists in an imperfect world. The Dans ran into the same kind of trouble that always seems to plague them when they come to the Big Apple area. The first time out, at the Westbury Music Fair, their sound equipment didn't exist. The next time they refused to play at the Nassau Coliseum unless they were promised a soundcheck -- and they didn't get it either, because of last-minute confusions. The ultimate exasperation came one evening at the 'lavishly flower-bedecked' Avery Fisher Hall in New York, when they were scheduled to open for the Electric Light Orchestra. They were allowed only four minutes for a soundcheck and, when the Avery Fisher crew whisked them off stage, initially the irate members refused to perform. However, when they saw the crowd eagerly awaiting their arrival, the Steelys used pretzel logic and came on and performed an amazing 45-minute set. After one encore the audience was reluctant to let them make way for the Electric Light Orchestra.
Peter Erskine was at the Winterland in San Francisco on Saturday, May 5th, 1973, when Steely Dan opened for Slade and Humble Pie. It was altogether a more satisfactory occasion. "As the band filed on, their acceptance as one of the best new 'local' bands was consolidated. The sound varied from a muddy swirl to a piercing treble -- like ripping sheet metal -- but eventually the first number Please Stop and Take Me By The Hand, (Bodhisattva) resolved itself.
"Along with Little Feat," he wrote, "Steely Dan must be one of the most original and creative bands in the States. Their writing and playing was melodic and sophisticated, yet their impact was strong and totally immediate. The nucleus of the band is the writing team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, whose astounding solo and majestic vocals on Do It Again -- an extended stage version -- were the high point of the set.
Jeff "Skunk" Baxter played extraordinarily beautiful pedal steel on the lithe, emotive Brooklyn and scorching lead work on Fire In The Hole. The six-part harmonies were as accurate and soaring as on the album, but instrumentally the band far excelled the already high standard of playing; extending and developing the songs far beyond their studio interpretations. The band has a richness of sound and a degree of fire and attack that puts Zeppelin, and undoubtedly Slade, to shame."
Richard Cromelin reported on their Whisky A Go Go shows (second-billed were a group called Woodpecker!), and his only complaint at that stage was their apparent willful neglect of the visual side of their show. "Live rock 'n' roll is supposed to be a show, and how long can you look at a pair of denim overalls without becoming utterly bored or downright repulsed?" he groaned. Despite this, he declared that they had the opportunity to become an outstanding mainstream rock group.
"Becker and Fagen's tunes are simple and catchy and the arrangements, led by two keyboards and two guitars and stabilized by a solid rhythm section, are richly textured and constantly varied.
"The band's style incorporates several elements, the most prominent being a British-sounding heaviness and concern with nice melodic phrases and strong chord progressions. Also in evidence are traces of L.A. country rock and a good deal of basic commercial rock 'n' roll.
"Steely Dan's stage manner is moderately energetic if not terribly original, and while the lead singer's moves are largely unimaginative, at least they're there."
The band's first local gig as a headline act was at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Sunday Sept. 2nd, 1973, when they were supported by B.W. Stevenson. Once again, the reviewer was Richard Cromelin: "Steely Dan are America's answer to the Guess Who. When they first emerged, they sounded like an expendable commodity, but now appear about to assert themselves as one of the country's most versatile, listenable and downright brilliant ensembles." However, he went on to say that they were highly derivative in rock's finest tradition, and that their influences were easily spotted -- from the Archies (!) to Yes.
"Steely Dan's strongest forte is their ability to hang a broad spectrum of authentically touching emotions on a strictly commercial framework. In performance they sacrifice some of the cleanness of its recorded sound for an invigorating muddiness that flirts with, but never succumbs to, distortion. The addition of two women singer/dancers has livened things up considerably, and while their go-go gyrations are at first distracting, it soon becomes clear that it's all part of a carefully constructed master plan. And any group that encores with My Boyfriend's Back obviously has a lot going for it."
Steely Dan's English tour was much publicized and eagerly awaited, by critics and fans alike. They arrived in May 1974, and kicked off their tour in Mancester's Palace Theatre (commonly held to be Steely Dan's best ever gig by its participants), where the music press were falling over each other in their haste to publish the first accounts of them performing live.
Reviewing the Mancester gig, Disc magazine's Peter Harvey pointed out that the pre-tour rumor had been that Steely Dan couldn't cut it on stage as they had on record. "It proved to be totally unfounded," he said, "they played so extraordinarily well that you genuinely wanted to listen to them for hours."
Jeff Baxter started by saying, "We've never been here before, but we're going to play the best concert we've ever played in our lives."
Chris Welch, for the Melody Maker, wrote that they made most English bands sound five years out of date. "In concert they add another dimension of vibrancy and improvisation that is not entirely conveyed by the albums." He describes Jeff Baxter as "A man with tremendous enthusiasm and drive who injects them with a personality they might otherwise miss.
"The English fans were rewarded with all the great songs in treatments that did not disappoint in comparison to the recordings but enhanced on them. You might have thought about the appearances of the musicians (bearded, bespectacled, casual) that we were in for an L.A. boogie band.
"Donald Fagen, who took up the center of the stage with his grand piano, leapt around conducting, signalling, singing and generally holding the ensemble together. Behind him were two drummers, Jim Hodder their regular man, and Jeff Porcaro, only 20, who has played with Sonny and Cher. Walter Becker was largely hidden behind the cymbals, while Baxter and Denny Dias -- an impressive figure in Russian revolutionary beard and mountainous shoulders -- made up a complete guitar section between them.
"Adding to the orchestral sound was singer/keyboardist Michael McDonald on Fender Rhodes and high harmonies and "Royce Jones on soul vocals and percussion.
"Opening with a roaring boogie, Bodhisattva, they then swung into The Boston Rag, all received with tumultuous applause. 'Thank you kindly, I can't tell you how...' Donald Fagen seemed almost lost for words at this most important of concerts. More cheers of recognition greeted Do It Again with a powerful solo from Dias, ending with a surprisingly good conga drum outing from Baxter (?).
"Rikki Don't Lose That Number was pure pop, the three-minute song given its highest status since the days of the Beatles. 'You're making me feel most welcome,' Fagen said. More Amazing Baxter solos followed.
"The first encore came with Show Biz Kids and the second one was 'a new one you've never heard before, but you're gonna dig it.' (Mobile Heart)
"Steely Dan will open a few ears to the way rock can be moved forward without losing its roots and essential qualities. And who knows, maybe in time we'll get to love them as well."
At the Rainbow a week later, the Dan were apparently beset with problems once again. Ian McDonald, from the NME, gave them the thumbs down. "When they took the stage after the Kiki Dee Band's set, they spent five minutes doing a last-minute sound check, which was not only thoroughly unprofessional but dropped all the drama of the occasion into a bucket of detergent. Still the mix was rough. Far too much drums, no bass at all and no separation between Baxter and Dias's guitars, not to mention obvious on-stage problems with the monitors."
Thus much of Dias's opening solo was lost completely, which was a shame because Baxter was about to have an off night, and Dias only played two solos per set.
Going through the band line-up, MacDonald noticed Becker hidden away in his usual place behind the drums and suggested he'd be far happier playing his bass from the dressing room down a hundred-foot lead!
"Jeff Porcaro played so loud that his drum sound drowned out Jim Hodder almost entirely. Do It Again, when it came, was a dynamite version, with a masterful (audible!) Dias break and a truly inspired Moog solo from Fagen. Brilliant.
"The two encores were a nondescript Show Biz Kids and a splendid Mobile Heart, the latter unrecorded song allowing the musicians to leave the stage one by one until only Hodder and Porcaro remained for a five-minute drum blitz."
He wound up by saying that although he didn't particularly enjoy it himself, "the kids were very happy with the night and presumably got what they came for."
On July 3rd, 1974, Steely Dan played what was to become their penultimate-ever concert at the Santa Monica Civic. Richard Cromelin was again the reviewer. He titled his article "Steely Dan Shows Its Mettle," and began by saying that: "Any doubts about Steely Dan being the most inventive band in America were resolved on Wednesday night in front of a capacity 2,800 audience. The band packed enough punch to wake any nearby dead; the musicianship was incomparable, the interaction among the players almost telepathic and there were countless moments of uncanny exchange. Steely Dan's persona was embodied by lead vocalist Donald Fagen -- as a mad, emaciated musical scientist. Beyond that, Steely Dan was funny (both lyrically and musically), spoofing pop conventions as it created exquisite pop songs. It's that humor that finally lifted Steely Dan above all but a very few working bands, and which made the concert one of the year's best."
Another reviewer at the same gig, Andy McConnell, enjoyed the Kiki Dee Band, but criticized the sound quality and its loudness. "When Steely Dan came on," he wrote, "to a barrage of firecrackers and cheers of delight, the sound had actually been turned up. Within minutes the kids were in ecstasy. The third number, Do It Again, set the hall afire -- Steely Dan were really blowing and I began to forget about the volume. After six numbers, though, they reached their peak and started to repeat themselves and the decibel level became intolerable again." McConnell left. His final verdict: "Steely Dan need more variety and less volume to keep on top."
Well, as we now know there hasn't been one solitary opportunity since those distant days to see Steely Dan playing live. Becker and Fagen's hatred of touring is legendary, and whatever the real reason for that, they now totally disown their early concerts, claiming they were ill-prepared and ill-equipped for road life. It's just a great pity that such fine songwriters and musicians didn't -- and now never will -- share their audience's desire for them to parade their talents publicly.