With its unique fusion of blues, jazz, intricate rhythms and lyrics, Steely Dan’s music is easy to recognize and hard to duplicate.
Guitarist Jon Herington has been playing those famous licks and solos for Steely Dan since 1999, when the band recorded its first album in 20 years, “Two Against Nature.” Hear Herington yourself when the “Jamalot Ever After” tour swings into the Chesapeake Energy Arena Monday night.
Original Steely Dan members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker handpicked their band and backing vocalists to bring their songs to life, from the 1970s tunes like “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Peg” to “Hey Nineteen” and “Babylon Sisters” from the 1980s to their 21st-century offerings “Cousin Dupree” and “Things I Miss the Most.”
Herington is a well-regarded touring musician. Before leaving on this Steely Dan tour, Herington spent May in Europe backing singer Madeleine Peyroux in shows that left plenty of room to play his guitar.
“We had a stripped-down trio with Madeleine,” Herington said in a phone interview from his New York City home. “With no piano, I used my guitar to fill the musical spaces.”
Mix of old, new
Herington not only has his own sound on guitar, but for a successful Steely Dan tour, he must be able to mimic all the guitarists who have well-loved solos in the band’s many hits. He has listened intently to the band’s entire catalog and taken notes from his fellow musicians.
“Ironically, not a lot of guitarists can do this job,” Herington said. “And, while I play all the solos, don’t expect to hear a remake of the records in a live show.”
A Steely Dan concert is a laid-back mix of old and new hits, with different orchestrations giving the songs a new feel even if every word is the same. It’s a way to keep old songs fresh and to work new material into a show. Instrumentals are thrown in, as well as a few Motown hits.
It’s a set custom-made for Herington, who started playing guitar during middle school in New Jersey. He began writing music and songs in high school, though he said he didn’t get serious about music until he reached college.
“I learned a basic blues style by myself, but when I heard people play at college, I was shocked and blown away,” he recalled. “I realized I’d better get serious.”
He studied jazz guitar, creating his own music and recording solo albums, and spent the intervening years “trying to make a living” that included a gig opening for fellow New Jersey Shore resident Bruce Springsteen.
In 1999, one of his solo albums wound up in the studio where Steely Dan was working on its “Two Against Nature” album. Fagen and Becker liked what they heard and invited Herington in to play on a cut.
They added his guitar on four more cuts and invited him to join their tour. He said yes and enjoys working with the mysterious duo of Fagen and Becker, playing on that album, plus 2003’s “Everything Must Go,” Fagen’s solo works “Sunken Condos” and “Morph the Cat” and Becker’s album “Circus Money.”
“They are hilarious,” Herington said. “They are smart, movie buffs and fun to watch together. Everyone wants to simply listen to them.”
Herington also toured with the Dukes of September — Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs.
The guitarist has plans to finish a new album this fall when his current gig ends. His 2013 album “Time On My Hands” features bluesy driving rock.
“I am looking forward to October,” he said. “I am going to try to stay home and finish my record. It’s been a crazy several years.”
Steely Dan ‘Jamalot Ever After’ Tour