Let me get this out of the way first: I stan The Dan. Steely Dan has been my favorite band for roughly 15 years now. Growing up I, of course, knew the radio hits like “Reelin’ In The Years” and “Do It Again.” But, like so many classic rock staples, I’d heard them so much that they lost their appeal. It wasn’t until one day when I bought Aja on CD (the 1999 remaster) that I fully experienced the brilliance of The Dan. I’ve never heard anything like it. So jazzy. So smooth. (But not smooth jazz). And what’s with the dark, cryptic lyrics?
After hearing Aja, I was hooked. I bought all the remasters of the band’s original run, from the 1972 debut Can’t Buy a Thrill to 1980’s Gaucho. I eventually got the two comeback records from the aughts, which pale in comparison to the classic records but have their moments. Now, much to my delight, I’ve added another Dan CD to the collection – Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live!, their second official live album and first in 26 years.
Since 2007, I’ve seen The Dan live six times. They always bring it in concert. Singer Donald Fagen goin’ to town on the Fender Rhodes, and occasionally the melodica (essentially a mini keyboard you blow into), a red-hot horn section, angelic female backup vocals, Jon Herington’s masterful guitar work, bass god “Ready” Freddie Washington holding down the low end, and Keith Carlock rockin’ the kit. With a Dan show, you can expect to hear most of the hits and some deep cuts (usually these will be from the classic period), a cover, and maybe a cut from one of Fagen’s excellent solo albums.
Northeast Corridor’s 12 tracks were culled from shows at four different venues, including Fagen’s favorite, NYC’s Beacon Theatre, where they play entire Dan albums from start to finish over multiple dates each tour. The back cover of the CD reads, “In Memory Of Walter Becker,” Steely Dan’s other half (his witty monologue during the “Hey Nineteen” break is sorely missed here).
As a hardcore fan, I’m thrilled that the 62-minute album has several lesser-known songs I’ve never heard live, most notably “Glamour Profession,” a funky album cut about a coke dealer whose client, L.A. basketball player Hoops McCann, is looking for some “illegal fun under the sun.” Another deep cut featured is the lovely “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” one of the standouts from Pretzel Logic.
But don’t get me wrong, I love to hear the hits, too, and this set delivers on that front with stunning takes on “Hey Nineteen,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “Bodhisattva.” Aja-era fans won’t be disappointed as the album begins with “Black Cow,” the perfect set opener. Later, we get “Peg” and the title track – always a concert highlight with the horn solos and Carlock’s virtuosic drumming.
As should be expected with any Dan release, the sound quality is impeccable. I listened with a Sony CD Walkman and Meze 99 Classic headphones and can say it’s one of the best sounding live albums I’ve heard. The record was produced by Fagen and Grammy-winner Patrick Dillette (whose credits include David Byrne, They Might Be Giants, and Joe Jackson) and mastered by the legendary Bernie Grundman.
Northeast Corridor has plenty to like for both casual and diehard fans. It’s a substantial improvement from the last live record, 1995’s Alive in America, which featured an ill-advised reworking of “Reelin’ In The Years.” That was The Dan’s ‘90s tour, their first since they quit performing in the ‘70s and became a studio-only band. Now, they just about go on tour every other year and haven’t dropped a studio album since 2003’s Everything Must Go.
This album captures a road-tested and finely-tuned band firing on all cylinders. The chemistry is palpable. And on some songs, like “Things I Miss The Most” and “Kid Charlemagne,” the absence of studio sheen is for the better. The live arrangements are a tad looser, making the tunes swing harder.
Well, now that I’ve fan-boyed my ass off over this record, I’m off to “Lost Wages,” where I might just have Cuervo Gold, grapefruit wine, Scotch whisky, and a piña colada, my friend. Steely Dan have the right mix every time.