(Pictured: Steely Dan at Coachella in 2015.)
I am occasionally tempted to buy super-deluxe reissues or archive sets (most recently Elton John’s Jewel Box), but the feeling always goes away. And I don’t go crate-digging anymore, so my collection has been pretty static for a long tine. But I bought an MP3 album this week: Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly: Live.
Fagen has been doing lots of press lately thanks to the release of The Nightfly: Live and Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live. In one interview, he mentioned that he wanted to go on tour in 2019 as Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan Band, only to be told by the promoter Live Nation that they wouldn’t book the band under that name; it had to be Steely Dan. Although one album is credited to Fagen and the other to Steely Dan, the lineup is the same on both, and the tracks on both come from the same run of shows, toward the end of 2019. (Tracks on The Nightfly: Live come mostly from a single show.) Fagen says the decision to make the albums was spontaneous: the band was sounding especially good after being on the road for a couple of months, and he asked the sound crew to start recording them.
The Nightfly seems to have grown in estimation since its release in 1982, not just in mine but in everyone else’s. It’s hard to find anybody with a bad word to say about it. It’s another example of the sound and the impeccable studio craft that Steely Dan fanatics love, but it’s definitely not a Steely Dan album. Fagen says that the solo albums he and Becker made were “more intimate,” and that Steely Dan albums were “more journalistic, and I was playing a part, in a way.” He denies that The Nightfly lacks an edge, however; he says that the edge is more subtle, and he’s right about that. It’s a concept album, set at the dawn of the Kennedy Era, and it evokes the vibe of the time, its optimism and its fears. We can see how the people in the songs were like us, and how they were not, and try and understand them with our knowledge of how things turned out.
Fagen notes that his current band has been together about four times as long as the original Steely Dan, and that the live albums are intended to showcase his players. He admits that the performances are pretty much like the records: “a lot of times I have difficulty coming up with anything better than Walter and I originally imagined.” But there are little moments that break the mold, a solo here (piano on “Ruby Baby,” guitar on “New Frontier”) and an embellishment there. The only track that’s drastically different is “Maxine,” on which Fagen leaves the vocals to the Steely Dan Choir of backup singers, as he’s done on “Dirty Work” and “Razor Boy” in recent years. (I was disappointed at first, but the new performance captures both the naive youthful optimism and deep autumnal vibe of the original.) Fagen always sang at the top of his range, and that’s more of a challenge now that he’s past 70. But he hits more notes than he misses, and he absolutely sings the hell out of “The Nightfly,” which is more soulful than the 1982 original.
I like The Nighfly: Live, but I wish there were more to it, not long, improvisatory freakouts necessarily, but a bonus cut or two, maybe? The Steely Dan Band has a repertoire of instrumentals that have been used to play Fagen and Becker on and off the stage, from straight jazz numbers to the theme from The Price Is Right, and while they’ve been bootlegged, an official release of one or two would be a fine thing. (One such instrumental, the R&B tune “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry,” is on Northeast Corridor.)
I wrote earlier in the week that I’m not especially interested in Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live. I have many live Dan bootlegs, so adding another live set isn’t a high priority. And unless you are a Nightfly fanatic, you may find The Nightfly: Live to be superfluous as well. My suspicion is that most people who buy it will be either Fagen completists like me, or vinyl collectors. But it’s a pleasant 39 minutes, and if somebody offers you a guarantee that the next 39 minutes of your life will be pleasant, you should take it.