For nearly 50 years, Steely Dan was principally Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, augmented by a constantly changing cast of session and touring musicians. For much of that time, Steely Dan did not tour, by their own choice. Late in their career, when new records did not sell, touring I suspect helped to pay the bills.
About every summer, in the 2000s, there was a tour. Then Becker died in 2017. Fagen took up the reins and the “band” continued to hit the road. I have seen them twice, once with Becker shortly before he died and once after it was just Fagen and touring band. I did not expect the rock & roll version of the 1970s Steely Dan, the first time I saw them, I knew they heavily changed the arrangements and instead of playing some of their radio hits, would play a few very deep cuts or covers. In concert, the song arrangements leaned on R&B, with a cool jazz vibe. The band had a group of backup singers and a lead guitarist to supplement Becker on guitar. Even though the arrangements made it sometimes hard to follow the record versions, I found a lot of life and new expression in the songs. I wondered why Fagen and Becker did not release a concert disc. Their discography had a live album from their 1993-1994 tours, but nothing of the more recent sound of the group.
This year, Fagen released another live Steely Dan album, so I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast these two live albums along with my own experiences seeing them in concert. One concert, I was on the front row and had a perfect view of the band. Fagen looked like Ray Charles in his dark glasses and the way his head moved to the performances. Becker was more front and center, and handled the between song chatter and stories.
In the studio, particularly during the 1970s, Fagen and Becker spent months and months recording, using different configuration of players, searching for a precise sound on each song. Each song was carefully created and charted for the session musicians to follow, yet Fagen and Becker could detect small differences between performances. Based on what I read, it did not seem like Fagen and Becker ever wanted to do concerts. I believe the later tours were because they needed to, and they were playing more for themselves than the fans. That is my impression as a longtime fan. These guys were artists and what they created was from their own passion and vision. We happened to buy it and enjoy listening to it, but the music belonged to them.
Steely Dan: Alive in America
Babylon Sisters – A mid-tempo selection, but it is a nice lead off to the set. It might have been more forceful if it had rocked harder, building to a more rousing conclusion.
Green Earrings – A bit faster than the first song, this might have been a better song to lead off with. This was never one of my favorite songs. The musical soloing is quite good.
Bodhisattva – The guitar work is sizzling.
Reelin’ In The Years – An interesting intro, this arrangement give it a different swagger. They open up the song and flex their musical muscles. I like this version.
Josie – One of the killer Aja songs. This is great arrangement. The guitar work is very good.
Book Of Liars (Written by – Walter Becker) – From Becker’s solo album, a rare vocal. I was not familiar with his solo work. It kind of interrupts the vibe of the other songs on the set.
Peg – Another song from Aja. Faithful version from the album.
Third World Man – From Gaucho. A slow, pensive song. Again, great guitar work.
Kid Charlemagne – Mostly faithful to the original, this song is a requirement for all Steely Dan concerts.
Sign In Stranger – A deeper cut from The Royal Scam album. An okay selection, but it slows down the momentum.
Aja – A longer version of the song, which is ripe for soloing, which this version takes full advantage. My only complaint is the ending should have been bigger and noisier, instead of slowing down.
Since Alive in America, there are a few other releases from recorded radio broadcasts, but Northeast Corridor is the only other “official” release. Released in 2021, this recording was made after Becker died. Fagen surrounds himself with a first-rate band including horns, backup singers and a second keyboard player.
Northeast Corridor is about what you would expect, generally faithful arrangements to the originals but fleshed out a bit, but make no mistake, this band rehearsed and rehearsed, there are not likely any improvised notes. You will notice that Fagen’s vocals are either mixed low, or his vocal ability has thinned. He uses his backup singers to fill in, which is okay, because the records used other vocalists on choruses and behind Fagen.
Having seen Steely Dan twice in the past decade, this album sounds like what I heard in concert.
Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live!
Black Cow – A great way to start the selection. The arrangement is fairly faithful to the recording. Fagen’s voice sounds a bit thin. One of my favorite Steely Dan songs, jazzy with melodic hooks.
Kid Charlemagne – A looser arrangement, but still packs a punch. The horns and background singers are great. This version retains the funk of the original.
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number – A fan favorite and perpetual song list selection. Fagen shares the vocals with his background signers. A very satisfying arrangement and performance.
Hey Nineteen – Fairly faithful rendition of the original recording, but somehow does not have the sparkle we are used to.
Any Major Dude Will Tell You – Not a bad selection, just a deeper cut.
Glamour Profession – Another deeper cut, from the Gaucho album. These smooth, mid-tempo songs settle into a groove. I can think of other, better Dan songs than this one.
Things I Miss the Most – A slower track, that takes time to shift into a mid-tempo gear. From the album Everything Must Go. Not great, but okay.
Aja – Mostly faithful to the original recording, with great instrumental passages like the original.
Peg – Another Aja delight. The concert shifts into a faster gear. The guitar work is good, but a little buried in the mix.
Bodhisattva – One of the few rockers Steely Dan did, it retains the fast, rocking feel of the recording. The guitar work is again very good, but too restrained in the mix.
Reelin’ in the Years – Another rocker and crowd favorite. Fagen’s vocals are shared with the background singers, not a complaint, just recognizing that he does not feature himself as much.
A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry – A jazz song featured on an album by Joe Williams from 1958. Here, it is played as an instrumental. An interesting selection to close the album.
I may be overly critical, but I love this band. Their complex and quirky songs mean a lot to my generation. We really missed out when they parked the tour bus for a lot of years, but we welcomed them back, even if they hated hearing requests for “Do It Again.”