Sunday, August 26, 2012

Indescribably Delicious: The Dixie Dregs

In the fall of ’76 I was chatting with Paul Goddard, the eccentric and quite talented bass player of the Atlanta Rhythm Section. We discovered we both had adoration of progressive rock, and would have lively discussions about various players, bands, and arrangements.  During one of our visits, I asked him if he had any favorite new artists.  Without hesitation, he said, “The Dixie Dregs.”

Being a rock journalist and radio DJ of the progressive ilk, I prided myself on being up-to-date on all the current trends.  But I was stumped with his answer.  “Hmmm…I’ve never heard of them,” I responded.  “What is their sound?”

In his typically clever way, Paul paused, staring off for a moment through his Coke bottle thick horn-rimmed glasses.  “Well….they are indescribably delicious.”

He proceeded to tell me that they were an instrumental outfit that had just been signed to Capricorn Records (the home of The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and other southern rock jam bands).  “The Dregs blend together so many styles of music, and they do it with such a great sense of melody and song structure, you just can’t help but like ‘em, even if you’re not into musicianship. Their first album is to be recorded soon, so be on the lookout for it next year.”

Eight months later, I am the Music Director at WVVX FM, “The Progressive Rock Voice of Chicago.”  My mission was to listen to every single album that came to us, which, during some weeks, could be as many as thirty new releases.  When a box of fresh product arrived from Polygram, the distributor of Capricorn, I was buzzed to see an odd cover featuring some hippie-lookin’ dudes jumping out of an airplane: Free Fall by the Dixie Dregs.  Remembering Paul’s infatuation, I quickly moved it to the top of my stack of auditions for that day. An hour later, when the production room became available so I could use one for the turntables, I dropped the needle on the disc. 

I was immediately mesmerized by the cornucopia of genres that defied easy categorization.  The guitar playing of primary composer Steve Morse was incredibly varied in style, with techniques that was reminiscent of Jeff Beck, Gary Rossington, John McLaughlin, Richie Blackmore, Steve Howe, Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke, Roy Buchanan, and Neil Schon, to name but a few.  Allen Sloan’s violin had elements of Jean Luc Ponty, Kenny Baker, Jerry Goodman, and Charlie Daniels.  Keyboardist Stephen Davidowski was well versed in jazz, boogie woogie, fusion, and rock stylings.  And the foundation of bassist Andy West and drummer Rod Morgenstein was adept at complex as well as solid rhythms that kept everything in sync.

When I met with our air staff the next day to go over new releases, I couldn’t stop raving about Free Fall, and declared that it would become an instant classic with our listeners.  When asked for a description, I gave them Paul Goddard’s line, but they just stared at me.  I then pointed to the mini-review I wrote on the album’s cover: “This is the best rockabluesicaljazzgrass you will ever hear,” and then proceeded to play them several cuts. Their collective eyes opened wide, grins came over their faces, and I knew they had been won over as well.

The Polygram/Capricorn promotion rep was thrilled that we not only added the album in our rotation, but that it quickly moved into our Top Five in airplay within a week of release.  He told me the band had just been confirmed as the opener for Sea Level at the Ivanhoe nightclub in Newtown a few days later and asked if I’d like to go.  I don’t think a battalion of Satan’s minions could’ve kept me away.

When the lights dimmed and they were introduced to the full house, there was only a ripple of polite applause since most of the crowd was unaware of who they were, let alone familiar with any of their music.  I noticed a seat in the front row was empty and filled it during their opening number.   I was directly below Morse and watched transfixed as he played fluid lines on his well-worn Telecaster.  They tore through “Free Fall” and “Refried Funky Chicken” in quick succession, and the gentle greeting from the Sea Level faithful was snow building into well-earned enthusiasm.  In between various tunes, I would chat with Morse and West requesting other songs from the debut album.  They were amused that someone actually knew their music, and Andy even mentioned on mic that, “our one fan in Chicago is here,” pointing at me.  The crowd laughed along, but it was a communal joy in that everyone in attendance was quickly joining that clique.

One of the things that set the Dixie Dregs apart from most fusion bands was that the songs were economical in their composition, and actually had verses, choruses, and a bridge even though there were no vocals. This made the songs quite memorable.  It also allowed them to play most every cut on their debut since each tune clocked-in at between three and four minutes, instead of endless, meandering jams of noodling over one repetitive riff like so many jazz rock outfits of the day.

The one song where they did stretch out was the frenetic “Cruise Control,” which served as their set closer.  The incredibly tight exchanges between guitar, keys, violin, and bass that got shorter and shorter towards the song’s climax had the room full of musician-oriented fans whooping in exultation with each amazing volley. When the final chord sounded, the six hundred in attendance leapt to their feet in a mighty roar.  The Dregs had arrived in big way in the Windy City. You could tell the band was visibly touched by the warmth as they left the stage.

I worked my way over to the small dressing room off stage right, and waited for the guys to come out to help get their gear off stage.  They each recognized me from the front row, and asked how I knew so much about each of their songs.  I explained my position at WVVX and asked if they would like to do an interview on air the next morning.  With “aw shucks” humility and a bit of excitement in their voices they agreed.  I guess they hadn’t done many radio interviews yet, especially anywhere outside of Georgia. 

The next morning they arrived at the station quite early and we spent the better part of an hour going through many of the tracks from the album on air. Our rabid, serious music-oriented listener base soon got acquainted with the Dregs’ narrative of meeting at University of Miami School of Music.  We learned that Pat Metheny was actually one of the professors there and took Morse under his wing. They had recorded an indie album entitled, The Great Spectacular, as their senior project in the school’s small studio.  Only a few hundred were printed up, but one of them made it into the hands of Capricorn’s iconic president, Phil Walden, and they were signed shortly thereafter. Some of the tunes from that disc ended up being re-recorded for their professional debut, and some other songs, like the title track, would end up on future releases.

The guys were so down-to-earth and friendly, and the music so uniquely terrific, that our listeners couldn’t help but fall in love with them. The album quickly shot to #1 on our request lines, and all the retailers in northern Chicago, where the WVVX signal was strongest, couldn’t keep the album in stock.

A strong friendship was forged between the band and me.  Unfortunately, several months later, new ownership of WVVX decided to change the format of the station.  However, when I landed on my feet as Music Director at WMIR in southern Wisconsin, I was able to bring my Dregs devotion with me.  Whenever the guys were within a few hundred miles, I’d drive to see them and we would hang out before and after gigs.  Sometimes they were headlining smaller clubs like Harry Hopes north of Elgin, IL, or in Des Plaines at the Thirsty Whale. I remember a gig at The Electric Ballroom in Milwaukee when the guys from Journey came in to see the Dregs.  I knew Neal Schon from backstage visits over the years, so visited with them while the boys from Dixie were tearing it up.  Neal, Steve Smith, and company had become fans of their recordings, but hadn’t experienced them in person yet. They were duly impressed.

The Dregs second album, What If, built on the growing buzz, and by the time the third, Night of the Living Dregs, came out they were starting to earn opening slots on major tours like the Doobie Brothers.  I recall an evening at Alpine Valley Music Theater where they played in front of 15,000 and took the place by storm.  It was always amazing to see these humble guys transform an oft-disinterested audience into screaming, stomping, shirt waving fans by the end of their set with rousing songs like “Take It Off the Top,” “Country House Shuffle,” “Punk Sandwich”, and the electrified bluegrass of “The Bash” and “Dixie.”  The Doobies even had them come out and jam with them on their final encore, “Listen to the Music,” to great response from the throng. 

Steve Morse and I became the friendliest.  We shared a lot of the same favorite bands, and found out that we were both P.K.’s (Preacher’s Kids).  His dad was a Methodist minister, mine a Presbyterian.  There’s a bond between those of us in that predicament--especially those who grew up liking rock music in the 60s and 70s-- that is hard for others to understand.  Sometimes we would get into pretty deep theological discussions.  Steve has always been afraid to commit to a deeper faith journey because he saw so much phoniness from congregations in his teens.  “I just don’t want to be guilty of being a hypocrite,” he would opine. 

My response was, “Hell, Steve, we’re ALL hypocrites.  And I’m the most ridiculously contradictory one of the lot.   I think each of us has to come to that realization before we can accept God’s grace towards us.” 

At times Steve would get quite bitter because, for all their popularity--especially amongst musicians--they were still struggling with getting mass airplay and generating enough income to sustain a career. For instance, he was voted “Best Overall Guitarist” five consecutive years by readers of Guitar Player Magazine, and was retired from eligibility so other people would have a chance to be recognized (only Steve Howe of Yes had ever been given the same honor).  But at the same time, each of the guys in the band had to take up part-time jobs to cover the bills.  Steve would lament how many people would tell them they were huge fans and had every album, but they would explain, in nearly every case, that they had dubbed the music onto cassettes from someone else’s disc.  He figured they would’ve had numerous gold albums if people just bought them instead of copying them that way.

With the lack of consistent sales and airplay, despite being one of the most popular instrumental bands ever and garnering several Grammy nominations, the Dregs went through various personnel changes, and have become more of an occasional side project for Steve in the past thirty years. Drummer Rod Morgenstein got a good paying gig as drummer for late 80s/early 90s hair band, Winger.  Original violinist , Allen Sloan, went back to school and became a surgeon. Subsequent violinists included Mark O’Connor (who eventually became known as Nashville’s premier fiddle player), and former member of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jerry Goodman. Second keyboardist Mark Parrish went on the play with many Broadway shows in New York.  His replacement, T Lavitz, later worked with Bill Bruford, Billy Cobham, and Widespread Panic (sadly, T passed away two years ago). Morse was a member of the band Kansas for a stint in the mid 80s, started doing solo albums, and eventually became the guitarist for Deep Purple over the past two decades. It seems like about once every seven years or so the Dregs will reunite for a short run of dates and record a new, freshly stellar, live album.  They are always greeted enthusiastically by adoring musicians world-wide.

Imagine my joy when I found out that Bill Evans, a music impresario friend of mine who helps manage the careers of Kerry Livgren (ex-Kansas), and Neal Morse (amazing composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist formerly of Spock’s Beard), also got to know Steve. One thing led to another to where Neal and Steve (no relation) have ended up forming a new band along with rock drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy (founder of Dream Theater), bassist Dave LaRue (Steve Morse Band) and little known but quite talented lead singer, Casey McPherson (of indie band Alpha Rev).  The ensemble, known as Flying Colors, has recently come out with their first self-titled release to great international anticipation, and will be touring this fall. The conglomerate has progressive elements compositionally, but is also quite accessible and melodic.  With the band members’ individual acclaim, it isn’t surprising that the album debuted on many world-wide charts in the Top Twenty upon release.  So it will be interesting to see if things can finally click for Steve this time around.

One thing is certain, Steve’s original foray into the music scene in the 70s has provided me with some of my favorite memories from his orchestral arrangements and soaring sonics on guitar.  Savoring those intoxicating concoctions has been one of my favorite musical repasts.  Indescribably delicious, indeed. 

Title track to their first album, Free Fall, performed at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in ’78:

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Spirits in a Material World

Eugene Peterson always helps me see in a new way…

G.K. Chesterton once said that there are two kinds of people in the world:  When trees are waving wildly in the wind, one group of people thinks that it is the wind that moves the trees; the other group thinks that the motion of the trees creates the wind. The former view was the one held by most of humankind through most of its centuries; it was only in recent years, Chesterton said, that a new breed of people had emerged who blandly hold that it is the movement of the trees that creates the wind.

The consensus had always held that the invisible is behind and gives energy to the visible; Chesterton in his work as a journalist, closely observing and commenting on people and events, reported with alarm that the broad consensus had fallen apart and that the modern majority naively assumes that what they see and hear and touch is basic reality and generates whatever people come up with that cannot be verified with the senses.  They think that the visible accounts for the invisible.

Having lost the metaphorical origin of “spirit” we operate, in our daily conversations (in the English language at least), with a serious vocabulary deficit.  Imagine how our perceptions would change if we eliminated the “spirit” from our language and used only “wind” and “breath.”

Spirit was not “spiritual” for our ancestors; it was sensual.

It was the invisible that had visible effects.

It was invisible but it was not immaterial.

Air has as much materiality to it as a granite mountain: it can be felt, heard, and measured; it provides the molecules for the quiet breathing that is part of all life, human and animal, waking and sleeping—the puffs of air used to make words, the gently breezes that caress the skin, the brisk winds that fill the sails of ships, the wild hurricanes that tear roofs of barns and uproot trees.

It would clarify things enormously if we could withdraw “spirit” and “spiritual” from our language stock for a while.

Superficial misunderstandings can be easily disposed of: Spirituality is not immaterial as opposed to material; nor interior as opposed to exterior; not invisible as opposed to visible.

Quite the contrary; spirituality has much to do with the material, the external, and the visible. What it properly conveys is living as opposed to dead.  When we sense that the life has gone out of things and people, of institutions and traditions, eventually (and sometimes this takes us a while) we notice the absence.  We look for a file-drawer kind of word in which we can shove insights, images, and desires that we don’t have a precise name for.  “Spirituality” works about as well as anything for filing purposes.

The frequent use of the word as a catch-all term is understandable in a society in which we are variously depersonalized, functionalized, and psychologized.  The particularity of each life is obscured by reductionizing abstractions. 

Life leaks out of us as we find ourselves treated as objects, roles, images, economic potential, commodities, consumers. 

Even though daily life is much simplified and made easier by these various reductions, something in us rebels, at least in fits and starts.  Most of us, at least at times, sense that there is something more, something vastly more. We need a word, any word, to name what we are missing.

(Eugene Peterson, Christ Play in Ten Thousand Places)

There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitution
There is no bloody revolution

We are spirits in the material world

Our so-called leaders speak
With words they try to jail you
They subjugate the meek
But it's the rhetoric of failure

We are spirits in the material world

Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day
If it's something we can't buy
There must be another way

We are spirits in the material world...

(The Police/Sting from Ghost in the Machine, 1981)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Goodbye Dear Brenda

I predict this Saturday is going to be one of the more bittersweet days I've experienced in a while.  In the south central volcanic hills of Guatemala I will be saying goodbye to Brenda Maria Leticia Tambriz Tzoc.  She has been my sponsored child thru Compassion International since 2000. And now she's graduating with high success out of the program at age seventeen, and getting ready to move into her young adulthood. This will be the seventh time we've visited, allowing us to become pretty close over this baker's dozen of years.  Here is the English version of the letter I'm giving her as we say our farewell' least for now.  We will both appreciate your prayers as it is bound to be a teary hasta luego. 

My Dearest Brenda,                                                                                    Aug. 2012

It seems like it was just yesterday that I met you for the first time at the Compassion office in Guatemala City twelve years ago. Do you remember that day?  We had a nice visit there where your mother gave me the first of many lovely woven gifts: a dark violet head wrapping, that I now use as a centerpiece on my dining table. 

We then traveled in a minibus out to Antigua where we toured through some of the old monasteries and had a wonderful lunch at a restaurant that had a lush, sun-dappled garden and playground. While we were eating you kept looking longingly out at the yard, and I knew you wanted to explore. When we finished our eating, we excused ourselves to discover what they had to offer.  No interpreter was going to be necessary. Because you were so tiny, we could hardly hold hands when we walked.  You had just learned how to skip, and so you gave me some lessons on how to do it properly.

When we arrived at the swing set, you were a mixture of excited and scared.  I sat down on the little seat and gave a demonstration on how it worked.  Then you took a turn, and were instantly giggling as you began moving yourself back and forth.  I positioned myself behind you and began pushing you a bit more with each return. Your gentle laughter turned into joy-filled squeals as you soared higher and higher.  The others back at the table could see and hear you, and they were clapping.  I then taught you how to use the slide and that was a great source of happy woops as well.

With each passing year I have been equally joy-filled watching you grow.  Whether from the updated photos, the progress in your penmanship, the maturity in your drawings, and certainly in the lovely time we have gotten to spend together in the seven journeys I have made to Guatemala. I want to thank you and your mother, Micaela, and other family members for making so much effort to travel long hours to see me, and always giving me a fantastic hand-made gift like my colorful jacket, the dress shirt, the vest, and the ornate wall hanging, just to name a few. 

I have a stack several inches thick of every letter and thank-you note you have ever sent to me, as well as hundreds of photographs from our visits.  Six of those pictures are framed and hanging in my home.  My favorite is in my main room where all of my friends sit while visiting.  It is that portrait of you sitting next to an ancient Antiguan fountain, where the mixture of your robin-egg blue sweater, sea green blouse, and the beige and rust painted wall all perfectly frame your flowing, shiny black hair, almond skin, and warm ebony eyes. Your gentle smile is the centerpiece.  You are no longer a little girl losing her baby teeth…you have blossomed into a striking young woman.  All of my houseguests always comment on how beautiful you are.

But your beauty isn’t just physical.  I recall how proud you were to write out all the numbers up to 100, and writing out the alphabet, and spelling your own name in your kindergarten and early elementary years. In successive visits you impressed me with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. With each successive year your letters showed refinement in your penmanship and structure, and your drawings grew in beauty and skill.  You also became a good basketball player.  In the early days I needed to lift you up high so you could make a basket.  Now you can shoot the ball with ease and accuracy, while dribbling circles around me.  As I look back on this dozen years, I have always been warmed to hear of your good grades as you were learning so much in school and at the Compassion Student Center, and to hear you speak of your hopes for a good future. Yes, you are a woman who shows beauty on many levels.

Thus, it is sad on one hand that our relationship as sponsor and child is coming to an end. But on the other, it is so exciting to think where you will be heading next in your life. 

Let’s not look at this as the end of our story together.  I would rather think of it as the close to just one chapter, and the turning of the page into many more to come.  I will be anxious to see more of how God will be moving in your life as more unfolds with each new season.

I would very much like to stay in touch with you.  Below is my mailing address.  I would like to get yours as well, and we can continue exchanging communiqu├ęs on our own.  And perhaps we will be able to visit more when I make my journeys with Compassion International to The Land of Eternal Spring that is Guatemala.  I pray you feel the same way.

In closing, I’ll recall how touched I still am by one of the picture that was taken of you and me inside the front entrance of your home in SololB of the central highlands when I visited in 2003.  Your mom had painted DIOS NOS AMA in bold purple letters on the wall next to the door, for everyone to see as they came and went.  That declaration, “God loves us,” was and still is evident in the fruit that has come forth in your life, Brenda.  And our God is hardly finished with you and your family yet.

“May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.  The One who called you is completely dependable.  If he said it, he’ll do it! Friend, keep up your prayers for me, as I will for you. The amazing grace of Jesus Christ be with you always!”   (First Thessalonians  5:25-28)  I love you, Brenda!

Under His Mercy,


Here are a few pics from our times together.  There will be more in the near future (my computer is fighting me on some downloads of great shots of when Brenda was tiny).

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Furious Grace of "Crash"

The Curious Souls group that I am part of is going to be watching and discussing the Oscar winning film, Crash, this coming Sunday evening. I've seen it several times on the big screen and DVD, and I still feel it is one of the more mesmerizing, gut-wrenching, and powerful movies of the past decade.

This multi-layered film starts with the lines “In L.A. nobody touches you…I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just to feel that touch,” which sets the stage for a series of around ten sub-plots that all seem to interconnect somehow by the end of the experience.

Canadian writer/director Paul Haggis (who has won two TV Emmy’s for writing, as well as the Oscar earlier this year for Best Screenplay for Million Dollar Baby), paints a complex, passionate expression of racism and prejudice, and how they intertwine in cause/effect to lead to sometimes tragic, and sometimes transcendent results. Los Angeles is the best setting for this to take place in a twenty-four hour period, as it is perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world at this time—certainly the most within the U.S.

Crash features exemplary performances from an ensemble as diverse as Sandra Bullock (as you’ve never seen her before), Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Ludacris, Thandie Norton, Brendan Frasier (in a rare serious role), Larenz Tate, and Ryan Phillipe (among others).  The story is both gritty and heartwarming, shocking and soothing, tragic and magical—and it will ring more truly in your heart than just about anything I can think of that has come out of Hollywood in years.

Lives of the characters collide in ways unpredictable, and it causes each of them to thoroughly face down their own moral dilemmas.  They need to cope with the consequences of decisions made, actions taken, or, in some cases, lack of resolve to do what was necessary.  Most of the characters go through a metamorphosis in the process.

Jean (Sandra Bullock) states at one point “I thought I would wake up and feel better today—but I’m still mad.  I’m angry all the time…and I don’t know why.”  This brooding sense of acrid bitterness can overtake us all if we allow it to.  Crash helps us face up to how and why some of this happens.

The underlying questions of the film are: Why has our society grown so cold to affection and respect? Why do we so often gravitate towards hatred and paranoia as the standard for communicating with fellow citizens?

They are addressed with a thoughtful blend of melodrama and realism in a nearly seamless way.  There is Truth with a capital T humming just below the surface of every scene.  It resonates clearly with everyone I know who has seen the film.  Just as in real life, we realize that none of us are simply evil people…we’re not just products of our environment, our families, and our frustrations.  But rather, deep down we all ache in quite human ways to connect with each other, to protect those whom we love, but are stunted by our own fears, and often by our accompanying anger.  All of this is done in the intersplicing of story and character development as brilliantly as Robert Altman has done in so many of his works over the years.

There are many scenes that will be etched in my subconscious for years:  Jean going ballistic on her husband (Brendan Frasier) about her distrust for a Mexican locksmith, as well as bitterness over being car-jacked; Anthony (Ludacris) decrying negative white stereotypes of blacks as he steals automobiles; Daniel (Michael Pena) and his angelic daughter in a scene under her bed when she is frightened by gunfire in the ‘hood, as well as the heart-pounding sequence when they are dealing with a gunpoint confrontation;  Matt Dillon’s Office Ryan has two very different confrontations with the same woman—one despicable and the other heroic. 

There are at least five scenes in this film that build and build in complexity, pathos, and intensity to a point where you have absolutely no idea how it is going to play out.  That’s the real strength of Crash, it is so realistic to life and the unpredictability of it all and how we react to what is thrust before us.  Allow yourself to be taken on the ride—but be forewarned: it’s not a pleasure ride. It is unrelenting in its ferocity and rage at times (especially the first half).  It will cause you to think over and over “how would I respond any differently?”

We do not live in a black and white world (that’s not just a racial assessment).  There are so many shades of grey. There are many compromises that we need to make along the way. But most of us know what is the right thing to do—and this film reminds us that we can indeed act justly if we stop to ponder how our actions are affecting others…as well as ourselves.

Crash is not a “nice” film.  Racism is dealt with bluntly, honestly, and without reservation. Every character participates in the perpetuation of the ugly cycles, and they also suffer because of it. But there is a palpable sense of hope and redemption behind the shattering of cultures and furious intolerance.

After sitting in silence for a minute once the credits were finished, one friend said, “Everyone needs to see this film.”  

Should you be interested in viewing and discussing Crash with our Curious Souls group this Sunday night (Aug.12th) at 6 PM at my house, let me know and I'll give you all the details.