Steely Dan's making tonight a wonderful thing
Steely Dan’s co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were the most literary songwriters of the ’70s, with each album tantamount to a volume of sonic short stories and poetry depicting disillusioned children of the ’60s crashing and burning during the Me Decade. They put Steely Dan to rest in the Reagan Era, but were touring again by the mid-’90s—the ultimate irony for a group that early in its career ceased to play live in order to focus on recording. For the ensemble of musicians who back Becker and Fagen for their nine-show Reelin’ in the Chips run at The Venetian, Steely Dan performing again is a blessing.
“I’d say it was a dream come true, except I never dared to dream about getting a gig like that,” says longtime guitarist Jon Herington, who was asked to join the touring band after contributing to Steely Dan’s 2000 album Two Against Nature. “We did a tour of Japan, we did a tour of the States, we did a tour of Europe, all in that first year. It’s completely transformed my (ways of) working, and it was probably one of the most exciting years of my life just because I had never been a serious touring player. I had done shorter trips with different people, but never with a band where I loved the music like that and where the material was so rich, and there was so much opportunity in the guitar chair particularly.”
Herington knew the songs but had never performed them. Steely Dan’s ’70s recordings featured a plethora of the top guitarists of the era, from the early days when Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Dias contributed memorable riffs to classics like “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again” to later works when Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour added their artistry to albums such as The Royal Scam and Aja. He was surprised to find that Becker and Fagen, notorious studio perfectionists, gave him near total freedom.
“The thing I was a little originally frustrated by, but ultimately grateful for, was that Donald and Walter didn’t care to give particular instructions at all,” says Herington. “They left it completely up to me, and I realized right away I had two choices: I could second-guess what they were thinking and try to guess what they wanted me to play, or I could go with my gut and just play what I thought was the best approach, because if I had tried to guess what they wanted and they let me go, I would have never forgiven myself.”
Herington has played alongside backing vocalist Carolyn Leonhart, trumpeter Michael Leonhart and trombonist Jim Pugh since he joined Steely Dan. He collaborates with keyboardist Jim Beard, who is featured on Herington’s latest solo album, Adult Entertainment, and is preparing to tour with the guitarist as a duo in June. With plenty of options to express himself musically, he’s comfortable playing to suit the songs when he’s with Steely Dan. “I always feel that the best way to play it is to honor the music as a whole before I think about what sort of personal ends it can mean for me.”
The Venetian, 8 p.m. April 12, 14-15, 19, 21-22, 26 & 28-29, starting at $81.50 plus tax and fee. 702.414.9000