in performance: donald fagen and the nightflyers

donald fagen.

“It’s too soon after the eclipse for bowling alley songs.”

That was the curious remark Donald Fagen offered at the Louisville Palace last night just before launching into a very faithful version of the Steely Dan chestnut “Kid Charlemagne.” What did he mean? Beats me. Then again, a good chunk of the storylines within tunes Fagen has put his name to over the years leave me scratching my head. But the mix of surrealistically cosmopolitan lyrics and assured jazz-pop swing that has long dressed Fagen’s music in and out of Steely Dan proudly fueled this 1 ¾ hour performance.

Though officially billed as Donald Fagen and the Nightflyers, the music on display strayed little from the familiar Steely Dan sound. The only difference was texture. Since returning to the road in 1993, Steely Dan has existed as a pop orchestra of sorts with a horn section, backup singers and, of course, Fagen’s longtime accomplice and band co-founder Walter Becker. The Nightflyers consisted of five unknown 20 and 30-something players from near Fagen’s upstate New York homestead. But this was hardly a Discount Dan at work. All the members capably handled backup vocals, even the high harmonies performed on past tours and records by women. And while Zach Djanikian played sax on a few numbers (as well as guitar), the Nightflyers’ rhythm section offered support so complimentary to the songs’ original arrangements that the full brass orchestration wasn’t really missed.

Hearing the Steely Dan selections was great for audience nostalgists, which was pretty much everyone. But it was especially interesting to experience some of Fagen’s solo career material in a concert setting. Those selections were represented almost exclusively by the 1982 debut solo record “The Nightfly” (hence the band name). The show opening “Green Flower Street” (with Fagen on melodica, adding soul-pop accents that recalled early Steve Wonder music) and “New Frontier” (which introduced the flexible guitar vocabulary of Connor Kennedy) set the pace. But when the show then jumped into the Steely Dan favorite “Hey Nineteen,” the crowd made very clear its preference.

Fagen remains, at age 69, a curiously askew performer. A serviceable vocalist at best with a nasally tenor that has thinned a bit with age, his vocals nonetheless inhabited naturally and completely the weirdly hip contours of his songs, from “Weather in My Head” (the only tune played from Fagen’s most recent album, 2012’s “Sunken Condos”) to a deftly cool cover of the Chuck Berry classic “You Can’t Catch Me” to the Steely Dan staple “Reeling in the Tears,” which closed the performance.

Now, if he could have only found room for a bowling alley song or two.

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