Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers, Aug. 16, 2017: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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Atlanta Symphony Hall, Atlanta, Ga.: Donald Fagen has an obvious problem. His solo catalogue spans from the classic 1982 release The Nightfly to the sublime Sunken Condos in 2012. Then there’s the issue of Steely Dan – the band he cofounded and helms with Walter Becker. On and off, they produced classic albums starting with 1972 Can’t Buy a Thrill to 1980’s Gaucho. Then there was a great resumption of recordings with the Grammy-winning Two Against Nature and my personal favorite, Everything Must Go.

Now on tour with a crack band called the Nightflyers, Fagen must confront the issue of choosing which songs to perform from that excellent catalog. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer; still, this is a great problem to have.

The Nightflyers tour represents his first solo work since a brief tour for the Morph the Cat album in 2006. Though Fagen has only released one solo album since that tour, and no Steely Dan albums, a lot has changed in his solo modus operandi. Unlike his Morph tour, which included most of the Steely Dan touring band and added Wayne Krantz in place of Walter Becker, Fagen has elected to use an all new band of fantastic players.

Guitarist Connor Kennedy, keyboardist Will Bryant, drummer Lee Falco, bass player Brandon Morrison and multi-instrumentalist Zach Djanikian provided stellar support to Donald Fagen, meeting and often exceeding expectations. Do they sound like Steely Dan? Well, no, but even live Steely Dan doesn’t sound like the records. However, they were often mind blowing, leaving listeners shaking their heads in approval and amazement. Fagen, too, was up to the challenge. Sure, he forgot a lyric or two, but his voice was as strong as ever – and his Fender Rhodes playing has never been so prominent in the mix.

Green Flower Street,” the show opener, seemed a little tentative at first – the bass was too low in the mix – but Fagen’s vocals were effective, and Zach Djanikian’s tenor sax made up for the mix deficiencies. “New Frontier” followed in short order. What’s not to like about this version? Lee Falco’s tempo was perfect, Will Bryant’s synthesizer parts brilliant and Fagen’s Fender Rhodes up in the mix. Connor Kennedy’s Fender Telecaster solo seemed utterly inspired by his peers, with its clear and biting tone. Though this is probably the last Donald Fagen solo song Steely Dan has played, it has never sounded better. Never.

The same, unfortunately, can not be said about “Hey Nineteen.” Not that the version by the Nightflyers wasn’t good. These guys can sing with pitch-perfect harmony, matching the Frank Floyd and Zack Sanders original. Additionally, Fagen took a bouncy Rhodes solo. My only issue with this audience favorite is it’s well-worn, and now the Walter Becker mid-song rap/tirade seems like an essential part of the song.

“The Nightfly” seemed to provide this crack band no problems, despite the song’s inherent complexity. Bass player Brandon Morrison made me almost forget the original studio version of the song with his interpretation, and he and his band mates continued to amaze with their vocal support. Zack Djanikan’s tenor enhanced the melody of the song, and seemed to be a perfect fit – while Connor Kennedy made no attempt to copy the original Larry Carlton solos, but still came up with something amazing.

The biggest surprise for me, since I wasn’t aware of the set list before the show, was the inclusion of the funky “Countermoon” from Kamakiriad. These gentlemen can rock and “Countermoon” shows they can pour on the funk. A mean clavinet sound from Will Bryant, and a stunning tenor break by Zach Djanikian, ended up far exceeding the synth solo on the original. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the guys covered the ladies vocals perfectly, with Kennedy providing the “You’re not my Jackie …” response vocal. This version exceeded the Steely Dan interpretation of the same song from the early ’90s.

Three Steely Dan songs followed in rapid succession, and two were great. “Kid Charlemagne” absolutely had fire, with Morrison’s bass part matching the complexity of Chuck Rainey’s original groove – while Falco delivered an R&B-inspired backing track. Djanikian provided a chunky rhythm guitar texture from his Fender Stratocaster, but the solos by Kennedy were absolutely jaw dropping. The guitarist made no attempt to duplicate the iconic solo; however, what he played fit so well it seemed to be one of the all-but-perfect Steely Dan outtakes. Next up was the often-neglected “Third World Man”. Here, Fagen arranged and extended the bluesy introduction, making his Rhodes conjure visions of chaos and destruction. Again, Kennedy rose to the solo challenge, perhaps inspired by Fagen’s impassioned delivery of the lyrics. “Time Out of Mind” followed. With the exception of the dueling sax, guitar solo it was the same version of the Gaucho hit we have been hearing the last few years.

The band then chilled things out with their reading the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street.” This version is more jammy that the ones done with the Dukes of September. Highlights included Kennedy’s fuzzy-sounding Fender Broadcaster, Bryant’s deranged Hammond Organ solos and Fagen’s powerful Rhodes. Donald Fagen said he wanted to breathe new life in old songs, and they did that here.

Dirty Work,” however, harkened back to the 1972 original more closely than the recent versions that Steely Dan has played. “I’m Not the Same Without You” was the sole Sunken Condos representative. Fagen’s voice seemed even more urgent than the studio version, and Falco and Morrison provided a back beat sorely missing in the original.

“I’ll Cry instead” was a quick and jaunty cover of the Beatles, but it almost seemed lost as Fagen went into “FM” – which included a tidy end sax/guitar solo breakdown – then the revved-up fast shuffle of “Black Friday,” where Kennedy provided my favorite guitar work of the night. That’s saying something, given how excellent his playing had been.

“Peg” gave the guys an opportunity to play another nuanced Steely Dan song, with Morrison mastering the prominent bass part while Kennedy played it close to the chest with Jay Graydon’s original solo. Vocally, the entire band was on point in this song. “I.G.Y.” quickly slowed things down only to have the momentum reach a fevered pitch with “Bodhisattva.” Kennedy and Djanikian dueled like in the days of Dias and Baxter, with no horn section to restrain them. Unlike the original, there were no elements of bebop. Fagen and Bryant provided a solid keyboard core, as this insane guitar rev-up ended an excellent show.

We did get the obligatory “Reelin’ In the Years” as an encore, but at this point if you were not satisfied, there’s little hope for you.

Would I have liked at least one song from Morph the Cat? Yes. Would I have liked one more song from Sunken Condos? Of course. Was it an excellent show? Without a doubt. Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers more than delivered. Again, Donald Fagen has a problem – and it’s a good one to have!

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier
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  • Donald Clifton

    Thanks! Going in a week 🙂

    • Preston Frazier

      I’m going again tomorrow in Chattanooga. Enjoy.

  • GBach5

    Whoa… Dirty Work! THAT goes back a few years. Great review. Still some of the baddest cats in all the land.

    • Preston Frazier

      If you get a chance to see them go!

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