By L. Paul Mann
Steely Dan :: 07.06.11 :: Santa Barbara Bowl :: Santa Barbara, CA
July 6th was an unusually crisp and warm evening in Santa Barbara with light Santa Ana winds buffeting the hillsides above the city. It was a perfect summer evening for a concert by the 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 jam introduction of an old big band tune, Dizzy's Bidness." The group, hand-picked by the notoriously perfectionist pair of Steely Dan founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, was composed of impeccably credentialed musicians and back-up singers. These included veteran musicians Jon Herington (guitar), Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums), Michael Leonhart, Walt Weiskopf, Roger Rosenberg and Jim Pugh (horns) and Jim Beard (keys), plus singers Tawatha Agee, Carolyn Leonhart and Catherine Russell.
Fagen and Becker, the genius musical duo, sauntered onto the stage about ten 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 Nineteen." Steely Dan had the sold out crowd on their feet almost instantly and kept their riveted attention for more than two and a half hours. As is their usual custom, most all of the classic hits they played were reworked into live jazz gems, including these extended classic openers. Becker and Fagen bantered playfully with the crowd between songs, telling intelligent anecdotes about their long, brilliant career 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 last decade than in the three preceding decades since they first toured together.
Steely Dan first burst on the music scene way back 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 like 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 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 shows 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 that 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 what notes the two frontmen were exhibiting, however, 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 simultaneously, creating an intense and masterful remix of much of their magnificent catalog.
It was impossible to fit all of their greatest hits into even a nearly three hour set, but they played so many that most any generation of fans in the crowd should have been pleased. As Becker, wryly joked early on, They're 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.
Setlist Dizzy's Bidness, Your Gold Teeth, Aja, Hey 19, Green Earrings, Everything Must Go, FM, Time Out of Mind, Godwhacker, Show Biz Kids, Black Cow, Dirty Work (lead vocals by background singers), Night by Night, Josie, Peg, Reelin' in the Years, Bodhisattva
Encore: Kid Charlemagne, Outro: Last Tango In Paris
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