Steely Dan's Donald Fagen to Revisit His Past With a Little Help From a New, Young Band

When singer-keyboardist Donald Fagen and singer-guitarist Walter Becker, the guys in the jazz/rock act Steely Dan, toured back in the 1970s shortly after the band’s inception, they quickly developed an aversion to touring and rarely hit the road prior to disbanding in 1981. Since reforming in 1993, however, they’ve toured with more regularity.

The band performed just two summers ago at Blossom and now Fagen brings his solo show to town. He and his backing band, the Nightflyers, will perform on Friday, Aug. 25, at Hard Rock Live.

“When we got off the road after touring for a couple of years – I think it was in ’74, and it really had to do with the conditions back then for touring were much more difficult,” he says during a recent conference call when asked about his newfound love for performing live.

Some of the issues stemmed from the types of bands that Steely Dan played with.

“We were opening for a lot of heavy metal bands, so often, we didn’t get the kind of soundcheck we wanted," Fagen says. "The sound equipment back then was not quite what it is today. So we decided we’d rather be in the studio making records. But when we got back together about ’93, it was a lot of fun. And we’ve been touring since then, mostly in the summertime or spring. And it’s great playing for people, and it’s certainly a lot — although touring is not the easiest thing in the world, It’s a lot easier than all that stress in the studio.”

A quintet of young musicians that Fagen met near his Woodstock home, the Nightflyers include singer-guitarist Connor Kennedy, singer-drummer Lee Falco, singer-bassist Brandon Morrison, singer-keyboardist Will Bryant and singer-saxophonist Zach Djanikian.

“I’ve been living up in the Woodstock area for a long time, and my stepdaughter, Amy Helm, also lives there,” says Fagen when asked about how he assembled the band. “ I used to take part in her dad’s ‘midnight rambles’ over at Levon Helm’s’ barn. And so I got to know a lot of the musicians up here, and I think that I first saw these guys over at the annual Bob Dylan’s birthday concert, and I remember seeing them do some Dylan material, and I was just really impressed with what a great band they were. So when I wanted speak to them on a different kind of material, some solo material and so on, they were just there. And they’re really good.”

The band name stems from The Nightfly, the solo album that Fagen issued some 35 years ago. It yielded the hits, “New Frontier,” a tune that features a prominent jazz guitar riff, woozy horns and Fagen’s typically laconic vocals, and the swinging “I.G.Y.”

“I think my solo albums attempt to be more personal, maybe, and where in contrast with the Steely Dan material in which [guitarist] Walter [Becker] and I were perhaps more journalistic in some ways, that is to return and telling stories about stuff we – commenting on things and so on,” he says. “That happens with my solo stuff too, but generally speaking, I think, they’re more autobiographical.”

Fagen says the only time he ever played the songs from The Nightfly came when he went on a tour with some of his Steely Dan bandmates in the 2000s.

“It was really funny, because they’d never been played live ever,” he says. “And I think that month or two is the only time I’ve ever actually played them live. There may have been a few we played Steely Dan. I remember playing ‘New Frontier’ at a Steely Dan show once or twice. So they’re really new to me, because these guys actually have taught me the chords to a few that I completely forgot.”

Fagen, 69, says he’s enjoyed playing with guys who are some 40 years younger than him.

“It’s great hanging around with twentysomethings,” he says. “They know all of the good places to eat in town, and I’ve been eating a lot of exotic foods for me, at least, things I don’t usually do, you know, the wraps with a lot of goods, oriental sauces in it and things like that. I’m more like a grilled cheese guy.”

At a secret show to kick off the 20 city tour, the guys perform covers of tunes such as the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” and the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” Fagen says fans can expect the same approach at his Hard Rock Live show.

“I love doing covers,” he says. “I did some shows recently, maybe a couple of years ago, with the band, Dukes of September with Boz Scaggs and Mike McDonald. And that was all about covers, you know, the kind of music that got us into the music business – Motown and Beach Boys and whatever, so I really enjoy doing that kind of thing.”

The Nightflyers, who’ll likely perform a slew of Steely Dan songs with Fagen,  draw from the same jazz well that inspired Fagen back in the ’70s.

“I started as a jazz band,” he says “I listened to a lot of bebop and hard bop. But I also like sort of modern classical music like Stravinsky and that sort of thing. Well, also jazz going back to the ’30s like Duke Ellington and so on. And then I do like music from R&B from the ’50s and ’60s.”

If Steely Dan were to come out with its first record today, there’s a chance the Rock Hall of Famers who presented a remarkably unique fusion of rock and jazz wouldn’t catch a break on commercial radio, which tends to only pull from a very small pool of artists.

“I was amazed that it worked back in the ’70s, you know, we certainly weren’t part of the mainstream of popular music then either, or at least as the first few albums that developed,” Fagen says. “So yeah, I’m still amazed that they set us up on the radio and that we acquired so many fans. I really can’t make a living from recording anymore. I don’t think any of the solo albums, the last three anyway, recouped their budgets. But luckily, I’m really into playing live, and that’s how musicians make a living these days."

And then Fagen pauses and sarcastically adds, "Unless you’re a half-naked teenager.”

Donald Fagen & the Nightflyers, 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $52.50-$99.50,

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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