By L. Paul Mann
July 6 was an unusually crisp and warm evening in Santa Barbara with light Santa Ana winds buffering the hillsides above the city. It was a perfect summer evening for a concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl by veteran jazz rock fusion band Steely Dan.
As the sunset faded to twilight, the 11-piece Miles High Big Band and the Embassy Brats began an impressive jazz jam introduction of an old big band tune, “Dizzy’s Bidness.” The group, handpicked by the perfectionist pair of Steely Dan founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, was composed of impeccably credentialed musicians and backup singers. These included veteran musicians Jon Herington on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass, Keith Carlock on drums, Michael Leonhart, Walt Weiskopf, Roger Rosenberg and Jim Pugh on horns, Jim Beard on keys, plus background singers Tawatha Agee, Carolyn Escoffery and Catherine Russell.
Fagen and Becker, the genius musical duo, sauntered onto the stage about 10 minutes later, looking cooler than the Pink Panther in a Saturday afternoon cartoon. The duo settled down in front of the army of musicians and launched straight into three of their biggest hits representing decades of work, including “Your Gold Teeth,” “Aja” and “Hey 19.”
Steely Dan had the sold-out crowd on their feet almost instantly and kept their riveted attention for the nearly three-hour set. As is their usual custom, nearly all of the classic hits they played were reworked into live jazz gems, including the extended classic openers.
Becker and Fagen bantered playfully with the crowd between songs, telling intelligent anecdotes about their long, brilliant careers together. Steely Dan had played the Bowl before in recent years and also the nearby Chumash Casino Resort. In fact, the band has probably toured more in the past decade than in the three preceding decades since they first toured together.
Steely Dan first burst onto the music scene in 1971. I saw their first tour opening for Chicago (then the Chicago Transit Authority) in 1972 at the massive Tampa stadium. They came across as a long-haired contemporary rock band with just a hint of jazz in their songs, such as their first hit, “Reelin In the Years.” By 1974 the band had stopped touring and just worked in the studio, much like The Beatles had done in the decade before. The masterful duo was one of the first rock bands to meld different genres of music into their own distinct sound. Combined with witty, intelligent and socially relevant lyrics, they were able to produce a string of hit songs for nearly a decade.
The pair broke up Steely Dan in 1981 and mostly stayed out of the music scene for the next decade. With great fanfare they resurrected Steely Dan in 1993 and became one of the hottest and most expensive live shoes to see. As the 21st century dawned, the dynamic duo continued to tour and released two more albums, including one that garnered them four Grammy Awards. The latest incantation of Steely Dan may offer one of the best live shows the group has produced since their reunion, thanks in no small part to their brilliant backing band.
Fagen and Becker themselves were also in prime form, singing eloquently and playing with great veracity. It was at times hard to tell which notes the two frontmen were exhibiting, as they had master guitar and keyboard players filling in many of the most intricate parts of their songs. But the result was akin to two conductors leading an orchestra at the same time, creating an intense and masterful remix of much of their magnificent catalog of hits.
It was impossible to fit in all of their greatest hits, but they played so many that any generation of fans in the crowd should have been pleased. As Becker wryly joked early on in the set, “There aren’t many bands who play music like this anymore. Come to think of it, there weren’t many bands who played music like this back then either.”
The truly unique music of Becker and Fagen continues to be a living, breathing joy of improvisation on their latest live tour.