Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Steely Dan at the O2 Arena, London - 29/10/2017

“We are a little different from what we were a few months ago. But I’ve got to live with that,” Donald Fagen told the audience a few songs in to Steely Dan’s first UK gig in just under a decade. This reference to the recent passing of the band’s co-founder, Walter Becker, was accompanied by a poignantly placed empty mic stand that remained centre stage for the duration of the 90-minute Bluesfest headline set at London’s O2 arena.

Despite an understated onstage entrance, perhaps made more evident following The Doobie Brothers’ electric opening set, “The Steely Dan Organisation” – a term Fagen used in acknowledgement to his 12-piece band – kicked off the performance with the rousingly upbeat ‘Bodhisattva’. The irresistible funk groove of ‘Black Cow’ was an early highlight, while ‘Hey Nineteen’, the intro of which is so instantly recognisable, set the crowd momentum soaring. It would have been difficult to top this opening trio of songs, had it not been for Fagen then proceeding to surprise the crowd with ‘New Frontier’ – a track from his 1882 solo album, The Nightfly. Arguably a bold decision so soon in the set, albeit one that pleased long-time fans.

For a band that became renowned for their well-crafted and precise studio work, the entire set, which mostly comprised songs from Aja and Gaucho, translated fantastically in a live setting – an especially impressive feat in this instance, given the size of the venue. The skilled complexity of the onstage musicianship was most evident during Aja’s jazz-infused title track, in which a flowing tenor sax solo by Walt Weiskopf effortlessly intertwined with Keith Carlock’s extended drum breaks to perfectly offset against a more spacious keys section. Aja’s other highlight of the evening came by way of ‘Peg’, in which Fagen’s vocal – always confident in delivery, if at times gritty in tone – showed no sign of becoming lost among the bright four-piece horn section. The song was further elevated by Jon Herington’s incredible guitar solo.

Although the set leaned heavily on Steely Dan’s later work, glimpses of the early catalogue shone through to add some diversity to a performance that had potential to be a lot more varied had the band not been restricted to a 90-minute slot imposed by the venue’s 10:30pm curfew, a restriction that didn’t go unmentioned by Fagen – "We'd play a bit longer if we got permission from the substitute teacher". Key moments from the early albums included a soulful rendition of Can’t Buy a Thrill’s ‘Dirty Work’, in which lead vocals were provided by backing trio The Danettes, while later in the set, the band returned to the upbeat funk for ‘Kid Charlemagne’, from 1976’s The Royal Scam, complete with another of Herington’s remarkable guitar solos.

Upon reflection of the gig – my first experience seeing the band live – I could not have been more delighted with the setlist. As a Gaucho fan, I was particularly thrilled that this album was so generously represented; the sublime shuffle of ‘Babylon Sisters’ followed by the rhythmically tight ‘Time Out of Mind’, brought an overriding sense of euphoria that lingered right through to the climactic encore of ‘Reelin’ in the Years’.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

John Mayer at the O2 Arena, London - 11/05/2017

John Mayer’s recent two-night consecutive run at the O2 Arena marked a long-awaited return for the musician, who last performed at this same venue three years ago. Mayer’s current tour is in support of latest album The Search for Everything – a project that was released in two gradual ‘waves’ as four-track EPs, followed by the arrival of the complete album last month. With a keener emphasis on pop and soul, the twelve tracks that comprise The Search for Everything indicate an evident shift from the folk/country sound that has dominated previous releases, Paradise Valley and Born and Raised, though the country influence still lingers in places.

The Search for Everything tour is structured in a chapter format, accompanied by scenic onscreen visuals and stage lighting which provided a cinematic quality that was unlike any past Mayer gig I had attended. After opening the first of the O2 gigs with a solid rendition of ‘Heartbreak Warfare’ from 2010’s Battle Studies, Mayer and his band launched straight into the new material, kicking up a steady funk groove on ‘Moving On and Getting Over’ and ‘Rosie’ that rivalled the lighter, R&B tones of the album versions. Drawing this first chapter of the gig to a climactic close was an acoustic version of ‘Blues Run the Game’ that evolved into a dynamic, full band-led ‘Queen of California’.

Mayer opened Chapter two’s acoustic set with the heartfelt ‘Emoji of a Wave’ — one of my personal favourites from the current album and a definite highlight of the gig. While Mayer’s vocals were in top shape throughout the concert, his range showed most strength and consistency in this segment, accompanied by minimal instrumentation. The fine acoustics of the O2, probably the best I have experienced at this venue, further complemented Mayer’s soulful voice.

The standout tracks of the evening came by way of the John Mayer Trio set that formed Chapter three. Having never previously seen the Trio perform, it was an absolute treat hearing 'Vultures' and 'Who Did You Think I Was' played by this bluesy line-up; the musicianship and on-stage chemistry between Pino Palladino, Steve Jordan and Mayer was electric. On a side note, the documentary chronicling the Trio’s return that played prior to the band’s set, proved the perfect build, prompting further excitement throughout the crowd, while the onscreen visuals accompanying the actual performance were among the most inspired of the entire concert. With only three songs included in this chapter, and given the Trio’s eclectic repertoire, my only gripe was that the set wasn’t longer.

The full band returned on stage for the final chapter with ‘Helpless’, the track on The Search for Everything that, along with the aforementioned ‘Rosie’, bears most likeness to the Heavier Things era of Mayer’s earlier catalogue. The energetic, rock-driven song transpired fantastically in the O2, and succeeded in maintaining the momentum gained from the Trio’s epic performance. However, of the current material, 'In the Blood' had the strongest emotional impact; the song’s powerful lyrics and moody arrangement conveyed a deep sense of poignancy that was well received by the crowd.

The talent of Mayer’s band was apparent throughout, though key moments included Isaiah Sharkey’s extended guitar solo on ‘If I Ever Get Around To Living’ and David Ryan Harris’ vocally impressive interpretation of Prince’s ‘The Beautiful Ones’, which effortlessly transitioned into ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room’. ‘Gravity’ — the third, and strongest track of the evening to appear from 2006’s Continuum, was a natural choice to begin the encore, after which Mayer made a final, solo return to the stage for self-accompanied piano ballad ‘You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me’.

At one point before the encore, Mayer took a moment to thank the enthused crowd. Upon doing so, he humbly reflected on the more intimately sized audiences of past UK tours, in which he "played for all the American kids" — a nostalgic reference to the fact that, until more recent years, Mayer has experienced the majority of his success in the US, while maintaining a somewhat modest fan base in the UK. As he progressed into ‘Why Georgia’, I glanced round the packed venue and reminisced on my own memories of attending those intimate shows in the early stages of my fourteen years as a JM fan. Though I miss the atmosphere of the smaller venues, it is great to see Mayer receiving the recognition he deserves and filling arenas like the O2 - a feat that truly reflects his ever-growing fan base here in the UK.