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:

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