There are plenty of tribute bands in San Diego, but nothing quite like the Steely Damned 2. Built around the music of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, aka Steely Dan, the 12-piece band doesn’t attempt to look or dress like the real deal, instead they focus on the music, making sure that every note of the jazz rock legends is in place.
This includes layered vocals and, especially, the incredible recreation of Steely Dan’s signature guitar solos, courtesy of Steely Damned 2’s band leader, Hank Easton.
The band started out in 1992, taking a break in 2012 and is now coming back with a slightly revamped line up, which is stronger than ever. “We basically added the “2” because former leader and singer Bob Tedde is no longer involved in the band, and I wanted to let people know it wasn’t the exact same band they had seen before,” said Easton.
In the original version of the group, Easton was strictly the lead guitarist. “Now I am the leader of the band. I sing on several songs in addition to playing pretty much all the lead guitar. Truthfully, it’s even more fun for me now plus I get to call the songs and make the song lists, change arrangements etc. These are all things I enjoy doing,” Moving to a leadership position does have its down side.” What I don’t like about leading the band is trying to get 12 people on the same page for rehearsals and gigs. Also booking the gigs and advertising them is not really my cup of tea. But for now the pros outweigh the cons, so I’m good,” he said good naturedly.
The Steely Damned is a true all-star group, featuring Gary Taylor, Jim Reeves, Rob Gironda, Kevin Esposito, Doug Meeuwson, Chuck Phillips, Tripp Sprague, Larry Grano, Ruby Presnell, Mark DeCerbo, Doug Booth, and soundman Mitch Grant. Easton considers the latter to be as essential as any of the musicians. “It’s very important to me that we sound great live,” he said. “Mitch is an integral part of making that happen! If our sound on stage doesn’t carry into the audience it’s a big problem.”
Easton notes that the toughest part of getting the band back together wasn’t playing the music, but rather scheduling. “Really, the hardest part was just getting everybody together at the same time to rehearse,” Easton recalled. “In fact I think we only had one rehearsal with every single musician present. It’s difficult to book shows because everybody’s got other projects and other bands; it’s always a challenge. Other than that, it really wasn’t that hard; it’s just a matter of a playing through the songs again, making sure we’ve got all the vocals parts covered. If we were starting from scratch it would’ve been much, much more difficult.”
He cites the inspiration for the Steely Damned 2’s reformation to be much the same as for the original group. “For starters we were all big fans of the music,” Easton said. “Also, I think it was a challenge for all of us. Could we recreate this music live? Would people be interested? Turns out we could and they were.” The reasons for regrouping were closer to home. “The reason I put it back together was in part because I really missed playing Steely Dan’s music. I missed working with the guys. I didn’t like the way it ended. We had some really great times and it was lot of fun; I felt like we needed to “do it again,” pun intended. Also because a lot of people kept asking me “when will you guys play again?”
Larry Grano was thrilled to be asked to take the lead singer slot, putting in intense rehearsals. “For the band, it took a few. For myself, it was a huge learning experience. With the mixture of genres their catalogue has, and being a blues based pop rock/r&b singer, the math of the music was my challenge to face. Everyone has been extremely helpful and supportive,” he said.
Easton has been playing guitar for 40 plus years, spurred on by his parents. “They asked me what instrument I wanted to learn when I was five. I said guitar. I liked guitar, especially electric guitar. “Smoke on the Water” was my favorite song at the time,” he laughed. The love of Steely Dan occurred at a young age as well. It was the song “Bad Sneakers” that first caught his attention. “The music just caught my ear,” he said. “Katy Lied was the first album I bought when I was 13 or 14. I soon bought them all and every one since.” He considers Steely Dan to be “the perfect blend of rock, jazz, pop and R&B. There’s even a little country in the earlier material, when they had Skunk Baxter on pedal steel and guitar. The songwriting is fantastic. The players are the some of the best in the world. The recording is superb.”
With so much music to choose from, it’s a hard call on what to include in each show, but The Steely Damned has a 44-song set list, offering plenty of variety. “Certainly not just the hits, although we do all those,” Easton said. “There’s a handful I would like to add, but we have more than enough for a four-hour show.” He notes there are some tunes that have to show up in the set list each performance. “There are songs we have to play every time because fans get upset if we don’t! “Black Cow,” “My Old School,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” and “Kid Charlemagne” are all sure-fire hits, but sometimes some of the not so famous ones like “Haitian Divorce” or “FM” get a great response. There are so many quality songs it’s hard to go wrong, which is hard to say about many bands,” he remarked. “I’m in charge of the set list, so I try to keep it flowing nicely. There’s a lot that needs to be considered. [Such as] trying not to play too many ballads in a row, keeping the horns up for three or four songs in a row, mixing up the vocal tunes, since we have more than one person singing lead, although Larry does the bulk of them. I’ll take our set from the last show and keep the parts that worked well and change some of the set list I felt did not,” Easton said.
Beyond the songs themselves and the vocals, the guitar work in Steely Dan’s songs is one of the group’s signatures. “Many of them, I believe, are as important as the melody,” Easton said. While most tunes are played exactly, he does take some liberties, such as on the song “Green Earrings.” While I like the solo a lot, it is one I feel I can interpret with some of my own improvisation and it doesn’t interfere with the appeal of the song. Meanwhile, song’s like ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ and ‘Kid Charlemagne’ I will play the solo note for note, because I feel those solos are like anthems. To me they are as much a part of the song as the chorus. I will take my own solo at the end, where the recording has already faded out and try to take it to another level.”
He notes that kind of attention to detail is crucial to the bands appeal. “I think it’s important to them. I know it’s important to me. These are the tunes the audience fell in love with. That being said I think there are certain tunes where we can change them in a way that the audience will appreciate.”
Grano concurs. “The bands attention to detail is what really drew me in. Maybe the fans will agree, but it seems that those guitar and sax solos are similar to the melody of the song. We wouldn’t change the melody, so why alter some of these iconic solos? Of course, there’s always room for embellishments when we extend the songs end.”
As might be expected from a group that’s more ensemble than band, the Steely Damned 2 rehearse intensely for their concerts. “As a band we had seven or eight rehearsals. Individually I put in many hours working on my own parts, as I’m sure everyone else did as well.”
The reason the band doesn’t play more often is pragmatic. “I’d like to play as often as we can around San Diego and still draw at least 400 people,” he said. “Hopefully that will be every couple months or so. Like I said, it’s not easy booking dates everyone can do. I don’t want to use substitutes. Plus ,if we play more than every couple months I think our turnout will suffer, and we need paying customers to keep it going. I won’t ask the guys to commit to a show unless I can reasonably assure them they can expect to make a few dollars. That being said, if we don’t draw enough people, we don’t make much money. Many will turn down other paying shows after I book a show, including myself, and for many of us live performance is how we make our living.”
“The band plays as often as possible, given the multitude of projects we’re all a part of,” Grano confirms. “When dealing with such a big ensemble, scheduling can be difficult. We work it the best we can. Finding a venue that can handle a group our size is another challenge,” he said.
For those reasons, it’s likely the band will remain hometown heroes, unlikely to hit the road. “It’s doubtful we would tour; I’m not sure there’s enough interest fan-wise for that to happen. Maybe if Steely Dan stops touring,” he joked. That said, Easton hopes the Steely Damned 2 will continue indefinitely. “Yes, as long as possible and as long as people come to our shows,” he said. Grano agrees. “We plan on continuing this so long as it’s fun. And with this music and our fans support, there’s no sign of stopping!”
The Steely Damned 2 will perform on Friday, December 30, at the Music Box, 1337 India St.