Graded on a Curve: Steely Dan, Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live!, Donald Fagen, Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live

As a follow-up to our last live music roundup, here are two recent live, Steely Dan-related releases. During its ‘70s heyday, Steely Dan was known as the consummate studio band, releasing seven studio albums between 1972 and 1980 along with contributing the main title theme song to the film FM in 1978.

In 2000, the group returned and released two more studio albums. Steely Dan performed live in 1972, 1973, and 1974. Other than one show in 1978 at Cornell University in New York and with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of the group participating in the New York Rock N Soul Revue in 1992, the band didn’t perform live again until 1994.

There was a live album released of performances of the New York Rock N Soul Revue in 1991 entitled The New York Rock and Soul Revue: Live at the Beacon. Alive In America, the one and only live Steely Dan album came out in 1995. Now comes the first Steely Dan live album since Becker’s passing: Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live! Becker died in 2017 and these two live albums are the first albums released since his death. After four studio solo albums from Donald Fagen, his first live album, Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live, has been released.

Even before Becker’s passing, Steely Dan was playing extended engagements primarily in the Northeast, where each night of a run, usually at a concert hall, they would play one album in its entirety and other songs. Available on CD and 180-gram vinyl, but covered here from the double-album vinyl set, there are 12 performances from 2018 on this new live album: two from the Beacon Theatre in New York, four from the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, two from The Met in Philadelphia and four from the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut.

Other than “Things I Miss the Most” from the group’s final album Everything Must Go and a cover of the 1958 Joe Williams song entitled “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry,” the rest of the material here is vintage Steely Dan. There are three songs from Aja, two from Gaucho, two from Pretzel Logic, one from The Royal Scam, one from Countdown to Ecstasy, and one from Can’t Buy A Thrill. There are no songs from Katy Lied or Two Against Nature. The songs repeated from the last Steely Dan live album are “Bodhisattva,” “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Peg,” “Kid Charlemagne,” and “Aja.” That album had 11 songs.

While Becker’s guitar work and presence is missing, this is rousing live Steely Dan, as played in the musically suitable concert hall environment. In keeping with Steely Dan’s M.O. of having only the best sound on its recordings, this concert release has a live sound as good as it gets. It’s interesting how the group takes these finely crafted studio recordings and turns them into fresh and dynamic live tracks. This is a must-have for Steely Dan fans and the perfect complement to their previous related live releases. Fittingly, on the back of the album and in the liner notes it says: “In memory of Walter Becker.”

If the new live Steely Dan album wasn’t enough, Steely Dan fans now also have the first-ever live album from a member of the group. Like the concept for the Steely Dan shows where the group performs one of its albums live, Donald Fagen does his entire first solo album live on Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live. It is available on both CD and vinyl, and we will cover the 180-gram vinyl edition here.

These performances were taken from Fagen’s 2019 tour, with the backing of the Steely Dan band on six tracks from the Beacon Theatre in New York and two from the Orpheum Theatre in Boston. It’s hard to believe this album is 40 years old. It was Fagen’s first work after the breakup of Steely Dan. Lyrically, it’s a futuristic album, but it also shows Fagen also looking back to the mid-century, atomic-age days of the late-night, FM, jazz DJ.

The original studio album had all the earmarks of the polished Steely Dan sound, with a decidedly sophisticated, adult approach. Among the seven Fagen compositions is “Ruby Baby,” a Leiber and Stoller composition that fits right in. The original studio album was released just as the digital sound of CDs was taking hold, so hearing it in a more living, breathing environment on vinyl gives it a new life.

These two releases are a high-water mark for Steely Dan fans, as throughout the group’s career they often released albums sporadically and had such a minimal touring career early on. In 50 years, this is the only time two albums related to the group have been released in the same year.

Steely Dan, Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live!
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Donald Fagen, Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live
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