Steely Dan's Donald Fagen Gives Update on Walter Becker's Health, Talks Solo Tour With New Band

Donald Fragen of Steely Dan
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Scoop Marketing

Donald Fragen of Steely Dan performs onstage during The Classic West at Dodger Stadium on July 15, 2017 in Los Angeles.

As Donald Fagen prepares to kick off a tour with his new band the Nightflyers -- named after his first solo album, 1982's The Nightfly, he's being circumspect about Steely Dan partner Walter Becker's health.

Becker missed both of Steely Dan's performances during the recent Classic West and Classic East concerts in Los Angeles and New York. Fagen told Billboard during a conference call about the Nightflyers tour that "Walter's recovering from a procedure and hopefully he'll be fine very soon," but did not elaborate on Becker's surgery or prognosis. Fagen did add that the Classic shows, during which Steely Dan shared bills with the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers, were a bit odd, and not only because of the absence of his musical partner.

"They were fun," he says. "I think it's been a long time since we opened for another band, and that was stranger than I thought it would be because I realized that a lot of the audience, probably a majority fo the audience, was there to see the Eagles, and although we have certain things in common I don't think it's a perfect fit. I'm used to the audience being mainly interested in Steely Dan, so that was a little different. But they were good."

Fagen and the Nightflyers kick off their tour with two nights Thursday and Friday in Port Chester, N.Y., wrapping up the 26-date run Sept. 23-24 at the Yokohama Blue Note Jazz Fest in Japan. The group, comprised of young players from the Hudson Valley/Ulster County area where Fagen resides, played a surprise club show Monday night in Marlboro, N.Y., offering a set that mixed Steely Dan and Fagen solo material with covers that included the Grateful Dead's "Shakedown Street" and the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden." Fagen is particularly looking forward to giving an airing to songs from his four solo albums, which have taken a back seat since Steely Dan reactivated and began touring extensively in 1993.

"The only time we actually got into those was when I was on tour with some of the guys from the Steely Dan band in 2006, I believe," Fagen recalled. "I did a brief tour and it was really fun 'cause they'd never been played live, ever, and I think that month or two is the only time I've ever played them live. I remember playing 'The New Frontier' at a Steely Dan show once or twice. So they're really new to me. These (Nightflyers) guys actually have taught me the chords to a few that I forgot." And with the oldest Nightflyer just 28 years old, Fagen, 69, is enjoying being around a much younger group of players. 

"It's great hanging around with twentysomethings," Fagen said, noting that a fringe benefit is "they know all the good places to eat in town. I've been eating a lot of exotic food -- for me, at least. I'm more of, like, a grilled cheese guy." Musically, however, it's been a great fit.

"When I first saw them I could see they seemed to be a cut above some of the other local musicians," Fagen said. "They had a really good feel. They remind me of fellow Bard (College) students back in the late '60s; I don't think they're sort of stereotypical millennials. They have a real sense of tradition and soul. It's...a thrilling musical relationship and it has to do with our personal relationship...We all see things in a similar way, I think, musically and that's the main thing."

Fagen has, in fact, begun writing material with guitarist Connor Kennedy, which may surface as part of his fifth solo album. "I'd love to go into the studio with these guys," he said. "I've got some new material. We haven't had a chance to work up too many things but on the road I'm hoping to show the guys some of the new stuff I've been writing, and it'll be fun developing that with a band 'cause generally speaking in recent years the way I work is usually alone and doing arrangements by myself, or with Walter. It'll be fun actually having a band to try this stuff out on. I don't think I've done that since the early '70s, probably." 

Fagen does make a guest appearance on Todd Rundgren's new album, White Knight, on the Trump satire "Tin Foil Hat." But he doesn't expect his own material will be quite as topical. "I usually don't write any outright political stuff," he says, "('Tin Foil Hat') was not something we thought that much about. It kind of relieved our sense of tragedy to write it. But inspiration can come from anything that's happening currently as well as stuff that's just in your head."