Steely Dan + Steve Winwood @ Sirromet Wines, Mt Cotton, 23.10.2011

Since the early days of me getting into music during the mid 1980s, I’ve always really loved Steely Dan. I think they’ve become one of those 1970s bands that have unfairly been collected into a list of bands from that era and of that ilk unfairly summarised as “Guilty Pleasures”. I’ve always despised the phrase, especially as what could be shameful about listening to Steely Dan: the songs are fantastic, the playing out of this world and the guitar solos some of the best you’ll ever hear. I’d missed the band the last time they played in Brisbane, at the BEC back in 2007, so was really keen to cover them this time around even though I knew that it was going to be a soundboard shoot.

It’s my first time seeing one of the Day On The Green shows at Sirromet Wines at Mt Cotton. I don’t know why, I just assumed being wine related and on a “mountain” that it was going to be way out of Brisbane and somewhere near Mt Tamborine rather than not too far from the city, out towards the coast and not actually too far away from where I live. If I’d been in the country last year at the time, I would have definitely investigated the where it was in more detail as the Blondie/Pretenders double header would have been a dream to see and photograph.

It’s a very varied crowd today for Steely Dan. I don’t know what I expected but it was probably a high contingent of older, beard stroking jazz aficionados rather than families and their young children. At least every other car in the car park is a 4×4, the choice of vehicle needed considering the amount of stuff many have brought with them, the full picnic works with rugs and chairs in some cases. Either they’ve all been to one of these before and we’re hopelessly under-prepared or they just don’t go to many gigs. As it’s a warm and sunny day we’ve not even brought any additional clothes, something that proves to be our undoing as soon as the sun sets and the temperature plunges. We’ve got a small fold-up travel rug in the car so we take that with us when he head to the entrance to the site.

Size-wise and in terms of layout, Mt Cotton is a bit like The Riverstage, with the stage at the bottom of a grassed hill. The expensive seats are close to the stage, with General Admission section behind the mixing desk. As there’s a ticket fire sale in the last few days before the show, with 2-for-1 $99 tickets for the General Admission area, I’m guessing it wasn’t a great seller, although it’s a pretty sizable crowd on the day.

Other than the obvious hits, I don’t know much of Steve Winwood’s stuff. He gets a full 90 minute late afternoon set and many of the songs seem to go on for an age, with the full resplendent of organ, guitar, sax, percussion and drum solos throughout. He plays the first couple of songs sat at his organ before moving to guitar and venturing to the front of the stage. Disappointingly he keeps his sunglasses on throughout, although given the strong sunlight shining down the hill, it’s not much of a surprise.

Although I knew in advance that it would be a sound desk shoot, the stage is so far away from the where I’m stood that it might as well be in a different postcode. Even with a 2x converter and a non-full frame camera that makes the maximum zoom 600mm, the individual members of the band come no where close to filling the frame, and even accurate spot metering is impossible. Heavy post-production cropping is required to come up with the final set of photos but really show the age and resolution of my camera when compared to some of the more typical higher spec cameras. But ultimately I’m here to see the band and the photographing is just a secondary interest that has got me through the door. Obviously I would have liked to come away with a really lovely set of photos but it just isn’t happening tonight and as I already knew in advance what I was letting myself in for, I can’t complaint or feel annoyed at the terrible photos I end up with.

The three songs I get to photograph are Aja, Black Friday and Hey Nineteen and although photographing is frustrating I just enjoy watching the band, albeit from afar. It’s a fantastic show. The sound is perfect, something I didn’t expect given the outdoor show and the number of players, but it’s so good you could almost be listening to a recording. As would be expected, it’s a typical greatest hits show, with maybe only one or two songs I don’t recognise from their more recent albums. The classics are just about all in there: Bodhisattva, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Josie, Peg, Reelin’ In The Years, Kid Charlemagne, although, from memory I can’t remember if they play Do It Again. They make up for any omissions by playing My Old School, one of my favourite songs of theirs, and one I didn’t expect them to play. Given the band had so many fantastic guitarists – Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter (who found a second career as a missile defence specialist in later life), Larry Carlton, Elliott Randall – I as never sure if Walter Becker was much of a player, but he plays some very tasteful solos tonight, even though he leaves all the fast, flashy riffs and solos to the band’s second guitarist, Jon Herington. Having grown up with the band pre-internet, I also realise that this is the first time I’ve ever heard either of Walter Becker or Donald Fagen actually speak. Given the somewhat serious nature of the music they play (i.e. technical and intricate) I was expecting them to be a lot more serious in the between song-banter but they’re both in good humour throughout. “You’re the greatest audience we’ve ever played to tonight”, Becker tells us at one point. Similarly, Steely Dan have been the best band we’ve ever seen tonight, and for some time after tonight as well.

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