July 12, 2014
Los Angeles, CA
Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Paul Hebert
I finally saw Steely Dan and now I can say what I’ve been thinking all this time: they are truly a world-class live act. Nowadays, it’s common to see the big bands with expanded live lineups so they can recreate every nook and nuance of a record. As I was to learn, this is nothing new to Steely Dan — they’ve has been doing it for ions…
For their show at the Forum, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were accompanied by a superb 11-piece band that could do no wrong. Virtually every song in the set was a bona fide hit (or should have been), so it was important every player stay true to the original. On the Jamalot Ever After 2014 Tour, they are exceeding all expectations with riveting rave-ups at every turn.
Jazz guitarist Bobby Broom started things off with brisk, bopping half-hour set. Spectators continued filing in as he played — the curse of being the opening act. Even so, the music set a nice mood within the lofty confines of the recently remodeled Forum. Scanning the upper reaches of the legendary venue, I noticed a black curtain lining the circumference of the colonnade’s sixth or seventh row. In other words, the Forum was virtually customized and molded for the night to contain the audience and seemingly improve the acoustics. Well, it sounds good, doesn’t it?
After a short intermission, the lights dimmed promptly at 8:45, and 11 musicians took their places. They began with a slice of “Cubano Chant” to warm things up for the next couple hours. Once Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made their grand entrances to a rousing ovation, all bets were off and it was on. The best of Steely Dan was about to come to life before my very eyes.
They started out fastidiously with “Black Cow” and “Aja,” the first two songs from Aja, the band’s sixth and best-selling album from 1977. It’s funny when you look back at 1977, a time when mainstream rock was under siege from the likes of punk and disco, and here was Steely Dan in the prime of their career. The album would go platinum five times over, win a Grammy and was added to the United States National Recording Registry in 2010. Then as now, their music remains timeless.
Tonight, Fagen, Becker and company laid it down, pretty much as is, aside from breaking solos from the almighty horn section — Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Jim Pugh on trombone, Roger Rosenberg on baritone saxophone and Walt Weiskopf on tenor saxophone — followed by the first of many miraculous runs from guitarist Jon Herington, and eventually Fagen stepping out with a few toots on the melodica.
A suave drum break from Keith Carlock opened up the funky “Hey 19,” and Fagan titled his head rightward and delivered that smooth, comfortable vocal everyone knows and loves, suavely backed by the Danettes — singers Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery, Cindy Mizelle and La Tanya Hall. Fagen took the solo home and then went into his “A funny thing happened at the Forum “shtick,” which included jabs about the current state of the record business, tsunamis, chemtrails, the government, marijuana and booze.
“Rikki Don't Lose That Number” and “Black Friday” were flawless, “Show Biz Kids” had the aisles swaying while Becker soloed. Speaking of which, the silky “Time Out Of Mind,” one of the night’s deeper cuts from 1980’s Gaucho, served as a virtual launching pad for solo spots from the Danettes, Herington and keyboardist Jim Beard. The Danettes would later take the lead vocals on “Dirty Work,” originally sung by David Palmer and left out of the set list for years until its appearance on an episode of The Sopranos gave it a second life.
Herington played his most alluring solo on “Bodhisattva,” which had the room swinging. With the band since 1999, the New-York based guitarist’s style suits the music of Steely Dan to a tee. During an interview I did with him two days after the Forum show, I found out there’s a lot more to Jon Herington than just Steely Dan, including a solo career with four albums, appearances on both Becker and Fagen’s solo albums, and tons of studio and live work.
Coming down to the wire, a sweet “Babylon Sisters” was the last of the more sophisticated adult selections before the band went for broke on “Josie,” “Peg,” “My Old School” and their most classic rocker “Reelin' In The Years,” featuring Fagan and Becker’s abrasive, sardonic lyrics, Herington fueling Elliott Randall’s original guitar parts, and Carlock cutting loose on the final stretch with the kind of smooth, roundabout fills and rolls fulfilling the finesse of previous Steely Dan drummers like Jeff Porcaro and Steve Gadd.
The encore of “Kid Charlemagne” still didn’t seem like enough. You think about other songs they could have played — “Deacon Blues,” “FM,” and “Pretzel Logic” are three that come mind — and the show could have gone all night. It was not to be. Fagen and Becker exited the stage and the band played out on “The Untouchables Theme” before the lights brought reality back into play. Everyone seemed satisfied, no one filed any complaints. It may have been another gig for Steely Dan, but a premium performance worth its weight in bad sneakers and good memories for the rest of us.