Live Music: Steely Dan And The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra At The Opening Night At The Hollywood Bowl, Saturday June 18th, 2016
By Devon Wendell.
The first half of the opening night at The Hollywood Bowl kicked off with a heartfelt, spirited performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” by the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Vocal Ensemble, accompanied by The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. This was presented by The LA Phil Education Fellowship Program. These kids proved to be both extremely talented and adorable.
After a brief intermission, Steely Dan and The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra took the stage.
We’ve all heard the cliches about Steely Dan written by many rock journalists. Stuff like “smart rock” or “slick pop” with “esoteric lyrics” and so on. The fact is that Steely Dan is its own musical planet that has aged better than most “rock” oriented bands to have emerged from the early ’70s. They’re funky beyond belief and extremely dedicated to their hard-core fans and unparalleled musical legacy. Steely Dan understood from day one that most session musicians would prefer to be playing jazz full time and they used this fact to their advantage.
Steely Dan’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl’s opening night was stellar. When I first became aware that Steely Dan would be performing with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, I couldn’t imagine it working but I was wrong. The Orchestra, under the careful conduction of Thomas Wilkins, added another layer of funkiness to Steely Dan’s music on Saturday night. Vince Mendoza’s arrangements were wonderfully unique. The delightfully strange intros to each song were subtle yet powerful. That groove powered, confident and sly Steely Dan sound was in full force. Songs like “Green Earrings,” “Hey Nineteen,” and “Aja” still sounded fresh and brilliant. Freddie Washington’s thick, in the pocket bass lines held down each groove with strength and dynamics. Keith Carlock is like the second coming of Art Blakey and Elvin Jones combined. Yes, he’s that great. His thunderous solo on “Aja” was proof of that.
The horn section of Jim Pugh, trombone, Roger Rosenberg, baritone sax, Walt Weiskopf, tenor sax, and Michael Leonhart on trumpet swung hard throughout the program. John Herington handled most of the guitar “shredding” on such Steely Dan gems as “Third World Man” and “The Royal Scam.” Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker played with a more beautifully economic, blues based guitar style that was instantly identifiable. Becker’s solo on “Josie” was one of the evening’s many highlights. And then you have the king hipster himself, Donald Fagen; the coolest of cool cats and one of the smartest people on this planet. Those of us with “jazzier” ears will have recognized Fagen’s Thelonious Monk style percussive and syncopated piano/keyboard chops on “Home At Last” and “The Caves Of Altamira”. Fagen’s vocals were cool, relaxed and uniquely soulful. Jim Beard’s colorful piano and Hammond B3 fills were skillful and thematic Vocalists La Tanya Hall, Cindy Mizelle, and Carolyn Leonhart added some sweet textured harmonies to the music. Their collective presence was sexy and elegant as they swayed hypnotically to the music. There was even a magnificent fireworks display during “Bodhisattva.” What more could anyone ask for?
Planet Steely Dan looked and sounded like the coolest place in the stratosphere on Saturday night and this was the perfect opening night at The Hollywood Bowl.