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.