By Jeremy D. Bonfiglio
Michigan City News-Dispatch
NEW BUFFALO, Mich. — Guitarist Walter Becker and singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen are the heart, soul, rock and jazz behind Steely Dan.
Augmented by session and supporting musicians, including guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter, Steely Dan sold more than 40 million records worldwide behind hits such as “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Peg” and “Hey Nineteen” during their 1970s heyday.
At that time, the band was mostly known as a studio band, with few live performances. With Everything Must Go, the group’s last studio album, coming out in 2003, it’s clear that these days, Steely Dan tours more than records. On Friday, (June 10, 2016) that tour, which includes Steve Winwood as an opener, makes a stop at Four Winds Casino Resort’s Silver Creek Event Center.
Joining Becker and Fagen is longtime New York City-based musician Jon Herington, who, since late 1999, has been the go-to guitarist for Steely Dan for recording and touring. Herington, who also leads his own band, appears on Steely Dan’s past two albums, and has performed on Becker and Fagen’s solo work as well.
Herington spoke about his tenure in the band, and the ensuing tour during a recent phone interview from New York City.
Q: First of all, have Donald and Walter let you in on the set list? What can we expect to hear when Steely Dan comes to town?
A: There’s so many must-play songs on the list that most of the set list is going to be packed with those. They are the ones we do all the time, like the stuff from Aja. We do “Peg” and we do “Josie.” Of course we do “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” a lot of the songs that people know the best. Usually that means that we only have room for five or six other tunes to be rotated in and out each night, and those are usually left up to Donald and Walter to decide on the day of the show. We have to do the classics, but the catalog is pretty deep.
You were primarily working as a session musician when you were asked to join Steely Dan. How did that come about?
I think I did my first session with them on the Two Against Nature album in the fall of ’99, and somewhere over doing those recordings over a two-month period they popped the question. They asked me if I wanted to tour because they had a big year planned in 2000, and they really did. We did a tour in Japan and two DVD recordings. We did quite a lot of TV appearances. We went to Europe. It was a huge bunch of work, and really a shift for me because I was used to staying in town and doing gigs around here. It changed my work life pretty radically from that time on.
Not only was it a change from session work, but I imagine a pretty big workload, too. What was it like to delve into that catalog?
It was a challenge, to say the least. I was pretty overwhelmed the first time I had to memorize all those tunes. I remember that Japan tour came up pretty quickly. That guitar chair is a big one. There’s a lot to play, and a lot of guys to digest and absorb. My whole strategy has been to make sure I play in a way that if Steely Dan fans who really know the records are in the audience, they don’t go away disappointed, but for me it’s a combination of keeping it an experience where there’s some creative room for me where it’s alive and doesn’t feel like the same thing every night. Improvisation is a big part of what happens in a night of Steely Dan music, for sure, so I try to leave some room for that, and make sure I do the responsible, professional job that fits with the big picture of the sound and the great choices Donald and Walter always made. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but it’s a fun challenge, and a great thing for me.
What are your favorite Steely Dan songs that you get to play?
One of my favorites that I think of right away is “Third World Man,” because it has one of my favorite all-time recorded guitar solos. Larry Carlton played it and it’s just beautiful. That’s one of the few that I play just like the record because it’s so gorgeous. It sounds so perfectly realized, that’s a real highlight for me. We don’t get to play it all that much, but it gets in the set every once in a while. I always love challenges like “My Rival” and “Babylon Sisters” and “Glamour Profession.” Those are wild tunes, and just fun to play.
Now you also have your own pop-rock outfit, the Jon Herington Band, which is getting ready to release a new album Tuesday. What can you tell me about it?
Yeah, we just put it up for sale on the website. It’s called “Adult Entertainment.” I think it’s a funny and entertaining listen. It was a fun record to make. We weren’t even planning on doing a record, we were just playing a lot and the bass player, Dennis (Espantman), and I got together a couple of times because he had some ideas for songs. We just kept doing that over two or three months, and when we had 10 or 11 songs, I said, “Well, I guess we should do a record.” I was surprised, because we weren’t really in that mode. It’s just a fun record and I hope people check it out.