By Ted Hansen
When you’ve made a career of recording albums by surrounding yourself with some of the best musicians around, it only makes sense that when you hit the road to perform, you do the same. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the two evil geniuses behind Steely Dan, stuck to that successful formula for Steely Dan’s two hour set on Tuesday night, July 15, 2014 at the Comerica Theatre in Phoenix.
Steely Dan’s Jamalot Ever After Tour came to Phoenix boasting not only the talented song writing and musicianship of Becker and Fagen, but also a stellar eight piece band and three outstanding female vocalists. While the whole might have been better than the sum of its parts, the parts easily held their own.
Like trying to decide which Steely Dan album is the best, so it went with the parts of Steely Dan’s band. The horn section — Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Jim Pugh on trombone, Roger Rosenberg on baritone saxophone and Walt Weiskopf on saxophone — was outstanding, bringing to life the jazz and rhythm and blues sounds of the Becker and Fagen compositions.
Guitarist Jon Herington evoked memories of every great Steely Dan guitarist found on their recordings, yet with his own style. He earned many a deserved standing ovation throughout the night.
Jim Beard on the grand piano and other keyboards complemented Fagen’s work. Bassist Freddie Washington was essential in driving forward the Steely Dan songs. Drummer Keith Carlock, decked out in his florescent pink shirt, was the Energizer Bunny on speed. Just when you thought he was ready to drop, he’d finish up a song with a brief drum solo.
With the Danettes, vocalists Carolyn Leonhart, La Tanya Hall and Cindy Mizelle, the harmonies found in Steely Dan’s songs soared. They were essential in completing the picture that was Steely Dan.
Fagen and Becker’s belief in the greatness of their band showed from the beginning. The ensemble, minus Becker and Fagen, opened with “Cubano Chant,” an instrumental which gave some solo time to each of the band’s members.
Although Steely Dan’s lighting effects will never be confused with those found at a KISS concert, the opening song introduced the show’s effective use of overhead spotlights which would shine on the individual or band section being featured at a particular moment. To see the horn section lit up or Beard’s piano work being singled out, made their contributions appear even stronger.
Becker and Fagen, along with the Danettes, came out on stage to a standing ovation near the end of “Cubano Chant.” As Fagen settled behind his keyboard and Becker set up with his guitar, the band wasted no time in launching into the familiar “Black Cow,” the first of five songs Steely Dan would play during the evening from their 1977 Aja album. Fagen’s vocals meshed nicely with the harmonies the Danettes established.
The title cut from, “Aja” followed. Fagen, decked out in his red sneakers, took center stage with his melodica, using the blow organ to replace the vibraphone sounds found on the album. Weiskopf earned applause for his sax solo and Becker did a few guitar riffs as well.
A brief respite from the Aja selections followed with “Hey Nineteen.” Becker chose the middle of the song to thank the audience, expound how great his band is and create in one’s mind a vision of leaving the concert, going home, finding the finest “cheeba cheeba” one might smoke and dousing it down with, as the Danettes sang on cue, “Cuervo Gold.”
One of the dilemmas that face a touring band is how faithful does the band remain to the exact sound of the original studio recordings. Many audience members want to hear a song replayed note for note. Others want the live version to be different from the studio version.
With Steely Dan, the audience fortunately got the latter. The upbeat tempo of “Black Friday” took on a rhythm and blues flavor punctuated by the horn section. Washington’s funk bass line in “Show Biz Kids,” put a new spin on the song. Fagen turned over the lead vocals on “Dirty Work” to the Danettes, who shone both individually and collectively.
Steely Dan’s rendition of “Bodhisattva” was reminiscent of the big band sound found in the 1930s. All that was missing was having the horn section sit behind individual big band music stands emblazoned with the initials “SD.”
Becker’s only lead vocal of the night occurred during “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More.” There was a bit of a honkytonk flavor to the performance which also featured Becker on lead guitar for a change.
A crowd that had been seated most of the night, with the exception of a few standing ovations given after a song, finally began to find its groove as Steely Dan ventured away from their deeper cuts and back to the familiar hits. “Josie” and “Peg,” had many heads bopping with audience members silently mouthing the words to the songs.
But things began to break loose with “My Old School.” Now those in attendance loudly shouted back the song’s chorus “Oh no, Guadalajara won’t do” as the houselights came up. The capacity crowd had been waiting for their moment and honored the song’s end with a full participation standing ovation.
However, now the crowd didn’t sit down. They were singing, dancing and clapping along as Steely Dan finished their regular set with “Reelin’ in the Years.” Suddenly it was 1972 all over again and the audience had bought a thrill.
The encore of “Kid Charlemagne” kept the audience standing. The song was a snapshot of the evening, a great performance of the band as a whole coupled with stellar solos. Although the crowd wanted more, Becker and Fagen were content to finish the night as they began, allowing their band to send them off stage with the instrumental “Untouchables” theme.
Walter Becker exclaimed that, more than once during the show, “this is the greatest band he has ever had.” After Steely Dan’s two hour performance Tuesday night, there was little disagreement to that assessment.
Set list: Cubano Chant | Black Cow | Aja | Hey Nineteen | Home At Last | Black Friday | Show Biz Kids | Time Out of Mind | Green Earrings | Dirty Work | Bodhisattva | Pretzel Logic | Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More | Babylon Sisters | I Want To (Do Everything To You) | Josie | Peg | My Old School | Reelin’ In The Years | Encore: Kid Charlemagne | Untouchables Theme