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Steely Dan and Steve Winwood/PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, N.J./July 6, 2016

Steely Dan and Winwood

On a sweltering Wednesday evening in Holmdel, N.J., the legendary Steve Winwood and a surprisingly dynamic Steely Dan performed their respective hits with plenty of firepower.

With an intense sun glaring on the audience, Winwood and his group took the stage for an hour-long set of classics from his deep catalog. Looking dapper in a long white shirt, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was in tremendous voice as he serenaded the crowd while often accompanying himself on Hammond organ.

Beginning his set with the Spencer Davis Group classic “I’m a Man,” Winwood grabbed the still-settling-in fans by the proverbial collar and proceeded to lead them through a brief history of his career. Traffic’s “Pearly Queen” gave way to a compelling “At Times We Do Forget,” a number from Winwood’s overlooked 2008 solo album, Nine Lives. Following middling reaction to that song, Winwood recovered well, playing lead guitar on Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” procuring one of many standing ovations. The Buddy Miles cover “Them Changes” fit in perfectly with the night’s vibe. A truncated version of Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” (featuring the dynamic Paul Booth on saxophone) resulted in more cheers, as did another Traffic classic, “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” In between these two songs, Winwood got the crowd up and dancing with his 1980s solo hit “Higher Love.” He ended his set with another Spencer Davis Group classic: “Gimme Some Lovin.’ ”

Headliners Steely Dan played a sturdy mix of hits that spanned the group’s long career as one of the most intelligent acts in rock ’n’ roll history. Backed by an 11-piece group, primary members-songwriters Walter Becker and Donald Fagen played for an hour and 40 minutes, and they seemed intent on improving upon Winwood’s crowd-pleasing set with some added but unnecessary dynamics.

For a tandem that prides itself on being perfectionists in the studio, Becker and Fagen are a different animal in concert. Classic tunes such as “Black Cow,” “Hey Nineteen” and “Black Friday” were well-received. The four-piece horn section and the three backing vocalists all presented themselves well. The rhythm section (consisting of drummer Keith Carlock and Freddy Washington on bass) was obtrusive to the extent that they overpowered the subtlety of Fagen’s keyboards and the guitar work of Becker and Jon Herington. Whether this was due to the sound system, a bad mix or by design remains unclear. For a band with a sound that’s intricate and subtle in its ferocity, the overall effect was uneven.

A rousing version of “Bodhisattva” brought the crowd to life, and there was a wonderful arrangement of “Kid Charlemagne.” The atmospheric “Aja” was highlighted by Fagen taking center stage and playing a melodica.

“Do It Again” welcomed Edson Da Silva from Winwood’s band on percussion, but once again, his efforts were drowned out by the bombastic rhythm section. Nevertheless, excellent versions of “Josie,” “Peg” and “My Old School” made the concert worth the price of admission — and worth enduring an outdoor show in the summer heat.

— By Donald Gavron

Steve Winwood photographed in 2014 by Chris M. Junior
Steely Dan photo by Danny Clinch

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