You might wonder how Steely Dan picked Portland to kick off its much anticipated summer tour, but Walter Becker, one half of the founding duo that is Steely Dan, reminisced at length of the Portland connection during a rich, soul-satisfying, tightly paced two-hour set of Steely Dan’s hits from the band’s 40-plus year career.
Becker shared how Portland held a special place in his, and Donald Fagen’s, hearts and memories. Flashback to 1971 -- or to the best of Becker’s recollection -- when Steely Dan, on only their second profession performance was the opening band for The James Gang, whose notable success in the 70s and solid musicianship was praised by Becker. He woefully reflected the sound and lighting guy wasn’t as impressed with the opening band, and thus began their successful music careers.
Later in the set Becker bantered playfully about the rise, fall, and subsequent rebirth of Portland since 1971. Certainly, Portlander’s who have lived here since then knew exactly what he meant. Despite the friendly and humorous jabs, Becker concluded by saying, “Don’t change a thing, the city is just right the way it is.”
Fast forward to July 2, 2014, the start of Steely Dan’s 53-date tour of U.S. and Canada as part of their 2014 Jamalot Ever After tour, where the sold-out Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall enthusiastically greeted the iconic 70s band who’s trademark of stylishly blended jazz, rock, and soul was as fresh and captivating as it was the first time around.
To warm things up, the eight-piece touring band of session slingers played a swinging instrumental jazz piece, Cubano Chant, before Fagen and Becker joined the band, gliding into the lounge-fueled Black Cow. With colorfully back stage lighting depicting hanging banyan bows Steely Dan slipped into Aja.
After greeting the crowd, Becker conversed about the possibility some attendees indulgences before the band segued into Hey Nineteen, accompanied by the backing chorus sung by the soulful songstress’ La Tanya Hall, Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery and Cindy Mizelle, that kicked off a well represented slough of Steely Dan hits from each album except Pretzel Logic and Two Against Nature.
Each member of the Steely Dan’s studio slingers were given a chance to shine, starting with Keith Carlock’s precision, syncopated drumming on Aja, the almost double-time version of Bodhisattva, and his show case solo on Reelin’ In The Years. In addition to Becker’s tasteful guitar solo on Time Out of Mind and lead vocal on Daddy Doesn’t Live In That New York City No More, Jon Herington played stellar guitar leads throughout the evening, and played with flash on Show Biz Kids, Bodhisattva, Peg, and Steely Dan’s lone encore, Kid Charlemagne.
On opening night, Steely Dan played with an energetic enthusiasm, that found Fagen’s vocals in prime form. The backing trio of Hall, Leonhart-Escoffery and Mizelle were equally divine and shook it as needed on Babylon Sisters, Hey Nineteen, Show Biz Kids, Josie and Peg. Leonhart-Escoffery was also featured on an earnestly soulful lead vocal on Dirty Work.
And although it’s Becker and Fagen’s show, it’s not Steely Dan without the requisite horn section to provide a jazzy punch to that later part of their catalog. With Michael Leonhart on trumpet and keys, Jim Pugh on trombone, Roger Rosenberg on baritone saxophone and Walt Weiskopf on saxophone, the horn section provide a tight foundation throughout the night and was especially sharp on the Aja and Gaucho tracks.
One would be remiss to overlook the presence of Freddie Washington on bass and Jim Beard on keyboards. Both musicians’ performances were equally impressive and essential to the evening’s success.
As the two-hour set of hits wound down, the crowd was winding up. On a raucous version of Reelin’ In The Years, the audience was on their feet and dancing in aisles. When it ended, Becker, Fagen and company bowed and thanked the crowd and left the stage. But fans cheered wildly for their return, and after a few minutes Steely Dan obliged with a fiery rendition of Kid Charlemagne. The band bowed again, with Fagen mouthing, “Thank you, until next time”. Fagen, Becker and the ladies waved good night while the rest of the band played a short instrumental reprise.
Short of playing another hour, the 19-song set covered almost all of what a Steely Dan fan could ask for. Perhaps the only song they might have thrown in as part of the kick off of Jamalot in Oregon was Don’t Take Me Alive, which has always caused the crowd to exploded with cheers. Regardless, it was a great start to their 2014 tour that lets fans know Steely Dan is here to do it again.
The evening was opened by the straight-ahead jazz of the Bobby Broom Trio playing a funky jazz cover of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, a soulful cover of Derek and The Dominos’ Layla, and a bluesy rendition of the Tennessee Waltz.
Cubano Chant (band instrumental)
Everyone’s Gone To The Movies
Time Out Of Mind
Daddy Don’t Live In That New Your City No More
I Want To (Do Everything For You) – Joe Tex cover
My Old School
Reelin’ In The Years
Encore: Kid Charlemagne