Hipster, still eminent
Of course there’s nothing really new to be heard on the pair of live albums Donald Fagen has just released, one under his own name and the other under that of Steely Dan: Northeast Corridor, a selection of the Dan’s songs recorded at the Beacon Theatre in New York and Boston’s Orpheum Theatre, and a concert version of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo masterpiece, pieced together from those and a couple of other venues across the US. Why would there be? The original recordings were pretty close to perfect in the first place, or as close as Fagen and his late partner, Walter Becker, could make them across days, weeks and months in state-of-the-art studios.
So what’s the point? Perhaps it’s to allow us to replicate the sensation of hearing them for the first time, which is what even the slightest shift of emphasis or ornament allows. The slightly adjusted harmonies of the chorus to “Kid Charlemagne”, the melodica on “Aja”, the drum coda to “Reelin’ in the Years”, the brand-new rhapsodic trombone intro to “Things I Miss the Most”, the ceding of the solo bridge passage of “Maxine” to a member of the close-harmony backing choir — they’re small changes, but they help us to see the bigger picture anew. Otherwise the proportions and trajectories are much as they were on the originals — although in the case of The Nightfly the overall feel is a little more, shall we say, fatback: fuller and funkier, but not so much as to change the tone.
Maybe the most significant change is to Fagen’s voice, and even that doesn’t really alter the listener’s response. Always the instrument of someone who had to be persuaded to to take the lead on his own songs, and the more authentic for that, age has cost it some of its strength but none of its capacity to beguile and engage. It was always a sidelong voice, and his delivery of the confessions of a graveyard-shift DJ on The Nightfly‘s title track seems even more affecting.
When Fagen made The Nightfly, he was looking back 20 years to the time immediately before the Kennedy assassination, when capitalism seemed ready to share its material abundance throughout the western world. Now, another 40 years later, in a period of disillusion and uncertainty, the evocation of that period’s Madison Avenue-inspired optimism carries extra weight.
The musicianship across both albums is, of course, immaculate. Keith Carlock’s drums and Freddie Washington’s bass make those mid-tempo rhythms as crisp as a brand-new button-down shirt. The two-brass, two-reeds front line swivels on a dime (with a special mention for Roger Rosenberg’s baritone solo on “Black Cow”, and no blame to tenorist Walt Weiskopf for not quite being Wayne Shorter on “Aja” or Michael Brecker on “Ruby Baby”). Guitarist Jon Herington produces a great Denny Dias tribute on the euphoric “Bhodisattva” and pianist Jim Beard romps through “Glamour Profession”.
As a coda to the Steely Dan album, Fagen and his superlative quartet of backing singers leave the stage to a single-chorus instrumental arrangement of “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry”, a blues-ballad from a 1958 Joe Williams album. It’s a reminder of the depth of Fagen and Becker’s knowledge and love of music — as are these two albums as a whole. Which, come to think of it, is by itself a good enough reason for their existence.
* Steely Dan’s Northeast Corridor and Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live are out now on Universal Music. The photograph of Fagen is from the booklet with the Steely Dan album and was taken by Nick Antaya.
Thank you for pointing these new releases out. I’m already excited by the prospect. I saw them play one of their last gigs as a nearly original band at the Bristol Hippodrome on May 19th 1974, one of the last times that classic line-up played together. I was astonished by their talent, musicianship, ability to play multiple instruments and their live energy. I came away thinking it was one of the finest performances I’d seen, and I still regard it as such. Now I hope for some new pleasures from the source. As always Richard, I’m very grateful for your words here.
Two early end-of-year presents to self…………
Thanks Richard. With Robert Palmer gone, recently Charlie Watts, there’s less cool guys around that ‘get’ it. When they surfaced and friends asked : ‘ So, who do they sound like?’ It was great to say: ‘ Like no one else.’
In terms of subtle changes to the originals, “Ruby Ruby when will you be mine” has now become “Ruby Baby when will you be mine”. Also, Fagen stretches his voice/lyrics a lot more nowadays. Both impeccable albums, though.
Bound to be worth a listen. I love his reading of Joe Simon’s (Gamble/Huff) “Drowning In The Sea Of Love” with Boz Scaggs on vocals. Good that he no longer eschews live performance. He does it so well, the perfectionist traits producing fine results.
Great post Richard. Only trouble is, it’ll probably cost me twenty quid.
I will enjoy these. As an aside, if you want to see wonderful musicians do full justice to the works of the Dan, try and see Stacey Brothers’ Royal Scammers, now booking for Ronnie Scotts in January 2022.
Nick Antaya’s photograph could be Ray Charles.
“The Nightfly” is quite possibly one of the top 5 solo albums ever recorded, whatever the musical genre.
Especially admirable is the way in which Jon Herrington incorporates suggestions of the much loved guitar solos from the original recordings into new solos of his own.
Somewhere on YouTube there was a video showing 6 different guitarists playing a Solo for “Peg”, including Jay Graydon’s original. Wayne Krantz, Drew Zingg etc. IIRC. Jon Herrington paid homage to the recorded original, but matched it with his version. Different, but original in it’s conception and tonality. (Krantz, in comparison, seemed to me to be too “outside” to be coherent).
On “The Great Pagoda of Funn” (from Fagen’s “Morph the Cat” album), however, Krantz delivers one of the most intelligent and appealing guitar solos ever to be found on all Dan-related recordings.
I wish Fagen would release recordings of his shows with The Nightflyers, a young, five-piece band which did a remarkable job of backing him for a series of dates in 2017.
Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I always thought (also according to the devoted SD followers I know of) – that the Live at the Rainbow Theatre, London May 20th, 1974 and the Live at the Record Plant, L A, March 20th, 1974, was the really magical ones (maybe the whole 1974 tour)?
Saw the Dan several years ago in Edinburgh with Walter still going; and last year, just after Walter died, in Glasgow with just a symbolic empty mic-stand in his place. Both superb concerts – not many artists would have self-confidence to have Stevie Winwood (who was also v.good) as their support act! Looking forward to live albums, thanks for tip Richard!
I have a big problem with Carlock on this material – he’s a very popular drummer but his flat-handed grooves and leaden feel just don’t cut it for me.
An interesting point, and one with which I have some sympathy. If Steely Dan had an Achilles heel, it could be the last of rhythmic spontaneity. But it’s important to bear in mind, I think, that although Fagen and Becker had a very deep love of jazz, and knew how to manipulate its elements, the music they made was something different. It was not jazz at all, and shouldn’t be assessed by the same criteria.
I’m not sure the ‘is it jazz or isn’t it jazz’ question is the issue here – just that Carlock’s grooves, to my ears, don’t seem to ‘flow’ in the way that Purdie’s, Porcaro’s, Greene’s, Marotta’s, Gadd’s or even Hodder’s did (or Lawson’s, Erskine’s and Chambers’, in the other ‘comeback’ bands). I appreciate those are some big shoes to fill! I guess financial concerns and/or availability are also important considerations on a long tour too. Carlock obviously ticks a lot of boxes.
As Truman Capote might have said about Karlock; “he had only one fault: he was perfect; otherwise he was perfect”.
What a year 1974 was for this teenager. 2 entry points for me that year. Pretzel Logic for Steely Dan and Mysterious Traveller for Weather Report. In both cases i’d never heard the like before , still haven’t and have enjoyed a lifetime listening to them. For me the new live Steely Dan is the one to get as it features unexpected repertoire.. Fagen’s is a ‘straight’ run through of Night Fly. But both immaculate.
I’d count myself as a lover of some of Steely Dan’s albums (I still have my Yugoslavian copy of Gaucho bought cheaply there and brought back in my rucksack), but funnily enough your evaluation of these releases makes for a very good description of the Kraftwerk 3-d releases. Hope that doesn’t horrify you too much!