Photos & Story by Scott A. Smith
Remember way back when, when Steely Dan ignored the road, treating the word “tour” like a big, glowing slab of Kryptonite?
Back in the mid- and late-1970s, Steely Dan’s creative nucleus, Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals) and Walter Becker (guitar, bass, vocals), showed extreme favoritism to the recording studio, where they meticulously built still-great-sounding, jazz-rock LPs such as 1975’s “Katy Lied,” 1976’s “The Royal Scam” and the Grammy Award darling from ’77, “Aja.” Back then in those big-car, pre-digital times, Fagen and Becker steered clear from touring, even though they had the musical gifts to cut it on the stage. In their minds, who needed auxiliary touring musicians, the endless hours of travel and a meddling road manager? It was more fun for the Dan to hole up in a studio and cut into black discs of wax with friends like Michael McDonald, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Larry Carlton.
Fast forward to the present, and Steely Dan still deliver the goods, and they are doing it … wait for it … on the concert stage. Yes, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame duo have embarked on their “Jamalot Ever After Tour,” and their set on July 24 at the new Walmart AMP/Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers, Ark., was crammed to the roof with some of the Dan’s most famous songs. For one of rock’s most ecclectic, do-it-their-way groups, the gig featured a surprising abundance of familiar material.
Making the set list as enjoyable as the steady breeze that floated throughout the outdoor venue were “Peg,” “Josie,” “Black Cow,” “Aja,” “Home at Last,” “Black Friday” and the Becker-sung, B.B. King-esque “Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More.” The smooth-funk delight of “FM” hit the right nerve for the audience of all ages, and “My Old School” also pushed all the right buttons. With a coda that grew wonderfully noisy by the minute, “My Old School” paved the way for the galloping glory that is the rock-radio classic, “Reelin’ in the Years,” which commanded all of those in the seated area to stand, sing and bounce in time.
The ideal evening also carried moments of improvisation that kept the die-hards grinning and swaying to each song’s pronounced beats. Becker’s guitar runs mirrored much of the six-string efforts heard on the studio originals, but Becker also added colors when he played hot potato with the solos with fellow guitarist John Herington. The guitar breaks were steeped in jazz, blues and assertive rock, and when “Peg” rolled around, Becker strapped on a caramel-colored Gibson Flying V for several edgy patterns.
Fagen, whose vocal inflections and stage presence bore a striking resemblance to soul man Ray Charles, demonstrated equally impressive keyboard skills. The jazz-meets-funk piano parts to “My Old School” were among many high-water points hit by the sunglasses-loving Fagen.
But Fagen and Becker weren’t the only artistic powerhouses on that Rogers stage. Jim Pugh (trombone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Walt Weiskopf (saxophone) and Roger Rosenberg (baritone saxophone) comprised an unbeatable horn section, while backup singers La Tanya Hall, Cindy Mizelle and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery offered strong support for Fagen’s inimitable vocals. Pianist Jim Beard camped at stage left behind Fagen for some tasty keyboard parts, while bassist Freddie Washington’s finger work grooved endlessly with drumming great Keith Carlock. For those two hours, Carlock was the hardest working man in live music, clutching his drum sticks in the traditional way and pounding out thumping sounds of jazz-rock greatness. His busy arms and legs only stopped moving for the between-song moments of silence, miraculously avoiding the dreaded “claw” cramp that plaques us less-talented musicians.
For anyone wondering if he or she should see Steely Dan on this tour, the answer should be a no-brainer. Watching the Dan work their instrumental magic and hearing the semi-haunting lyric “No static at all … ” echo across an amphitheater on a serene summer night gives a feeling that just can’t quite be found within the confines of a CD or a concert DVD. As great as Steely Dan’s back catalog remains, today, in 2014, Steely Dan might be best experienced in the flesh.