PFM Cooks

PFM_SinglePhoto_72dpiPremiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) is an Italian progressive rock band founded in 1970. PFM’s unique blend of influences and genre-bending compositions echoed many of the themes of their British counterparts such as Genesis and Gentle Giant, while never sounding derivative. Given their Italian heritage, the difference with PFM was in their sense of drama and bravado, their lush melodies and operatic flourishes, all delivered in a blues and rock framework that incorporated elements of traditional Italian music. On top of their skills at composing and arranging these pieces, every band member was a virtuoso musician, including Franz Di Cioccio (drums, lead vocals), Franco Mussida (guitars, lead vocals), Mauro Pagani (violin, flute), and Flavio Premoli (keyboards, lead vocals). Original bass player Giorgio Piazza left the band just after the release of Photos of Ghosts, and was replaced by another fantastic bassist, Patrick Djivas, who has remained with the group ever since. Of the many amazing things about PFM, their live performances are legendary in prog circles based on the sheer adrenaline and talent of the musicianship on display. At times each player seemed to be outdoing the next while extending jams to such a frenetic pace, one would be reminded of a wayward locomotive train, threatening to, but never actually careening off the tracks.

PFM_PhotosOfGhostsCover_72dpiPFM was founded at the dawn of the 1970s, recording two albums with Italian language lyrics Storia di un minuto and Per un amico in 1971-72 before coming to the attention of Greg Lake who signed the band to ELP’s new label Manticore. Lake arranged for lyricist Peter Sinfield, who had worked with King Crimson, ELP and others to write new lyrics, at which point the band re-recorded some of their existing songs and new pieces with these English lyrics, producing Photos of Ghosts in 1973. It’s a brilliant album, from opener “River of Life,” to closer and continuing live favorite “Promenade the Puzzle.” A combination of well chosen layers of grand piano, organ, Mellotron and Moog synthesizer, classical acoustic and electric guitar, colorful often pastoral flute and violin, all backed by powerful yet nuanced percussion renders this album a masterpiece. One track “Il Banchetto” is unchanged from its original version, presented with Italian lyrics and liner notes that explain the meaning of its beautifully sung passages. On the strength of that track alone, this writer collected the original records; a lead anyone interested in the band should follow. PFM went on to record a third Italian language record L’isola di niente in 1974, directly shipping an English language counterpart The World Became the World the same year.

PFM_CookPromo_72dpi

The band toured the United States for the first time in 1974, opening for several established acts such as Aerosmith and Peter Frampton. They appeared for an amazing six nights July 16-21 at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, a venue that could barely contain the talent on display. PFM recorded their first live album, the aptly titled Cook on this tour, which was released as a severely truncated single LP in order to introduce the band to a wider audience. This live album was more recently released as a highly recommended expanded three CD set containing the entire performance culled from the PFM_CookCover_72dpisame shows. The sets were a showcase for the band’s lightening fast delivery of tremendously complex progressive rock music, from the very Italian sounds of “Four Holes in the Ground” to the blues rocker “Alta Loma Nine ‘Til Five” featuring an impressive guitar solo from Mussida. Fans of the band who were privileged to catch any of these shows without exception recall being shocked and amazed at these fantastic concerts, often reporting that the band “stole the show” from the intended headliners.

After this tour, PFM recruited an additional lead singer Bernardo Lanzetti who took most of the lead vocals on PFM’s last two English language releases Chocolate Kings (1975) and the jazz-fusion driven Jet Lag, recorded in Los Angeles and released in 1977. Lanzetti’s powerful voice fronted a more aggressive sound on these albums, each of which contain an extended central piece, “Out of the Roundabout” on Chocolate Kings, and the title track from Jet Lag, the last record to be released on an American label. These are excellent examples of the progressive rock form, featuring more of PFM’s signature allegro jams and frantic, driven performances. In particular, an increased use of fretless bass from Djivas paired with fusionesque Rhodes piano leads from Premoli elevate Jet Lag to the top tier of the band’s many albums. Though members have come and gone since the end of the 70s, PFM has continued to record and release new material every decade since their inception, each work continuing to demonstrate the enduring talent of these fine musicians.

Many fans like this author discovered PFM a bit too late to see any of their shows outside Italy have since been able to see the band in various reformations at progressive rock festivals and short tours. It’s worth noting that while film is scarce, audio recordings are plentiful, from the most important, now expanded official release Cook, to live CDs termed “official bootlegs” which capture a series of tours since PFM’s inception, volumes numbered under the heading PFM – 10 Anni Live. Arguably given the fact that Cook captures the band in its original lineup, the most important of these is Volume 4: 1977-1978, the Jet Lag Tour, which captures a blistering live performance during Lanzetti’s tenure with the band, and includes tracks from Passpartu, which marked the end of his involvement with PFM.

ON FILM

PFM_PaperCharmsBoxSet_72dpiPaper Charms: Complete BBC Recordings 1974-1976 (2015), Cherry Red Records, 25 min, 1.5:1

As mentioned, film of PFM is hard to find, and this author has not been able to locate a complete performance by the band during their 1970s heyday on video. However black-and-white film of the band performing songs from their first album on Italian television RAI can be found on Progressive Rock in Italy, and on streaming services, though this is difficult to find on DVD. Fortunately, the best of their television performances, taken from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in the mid 70s are available on the recent compilation available at Cherry Red Records, Paper Charms: Complete BBC Recordings 1974-1976. These films, recorded in 1.5:1 aspect ratio and somehow retaining color and clarity after all these years, are a revelation, a rare chance to see the band in their prime, in studio and stage performances of “Four Holes in the Ground”, “Celebration”, “Mr. Nine ‘Till Five” with the 1974-75 lineup and the track “Chocolate Kings” in 1976 which showcases singer Lanzetti’s contribution. The camera moves smoothly about the band members, providing revealing close-ups of keys, toms, winds and frets, uninterrupted by distracting transitions or other flourishes. This is how the band is best presented, simply performing their most enduring songs with lightening fast precision and aplomb.

PFM_FilmStripFilm Strip: (top to bottom) (a) Close-up of winds/violin player Pagani demonstrating rich, vibrant colors (b) Premoli with clear view of his work on keys (c) Mussida shown mid-distance provides a study of his soloing technique (d) Di Cioccio captured less frequently, as is the norm for drummers in early rock video (e) Lanzetti, in 76, part of the best preserved film segment from BBC’s OGWT

Dixie Dregs Soldier On

DixieDregs_Live5_72dpiDixie Dregs was an American band formed in the early 1970s by guitarist Steve Morse and bassist Andy West. Their music was almost exclusively instrumental, fusing rock, country, and a bit of jazz into a potent brew that was designed to showcase each band member’s virtuosity. Their core compositions were typically rooted in traditional country & western, most frequently upbeat and exciting. Their live shows were absolutely fantastic. One of their signature and most entertaining feats in concert was a game of “musical chairs” where each musician would trade off soloing in round-robin fashion, taking leads for ever decreasing measures until each would play just one note, passing from one to the next at lightning speed in an amazing display of talent. Musicians came and went from the Dixie Dregs, all of them exceptional, and founder Steve Morse has always been at the helm.

After two early albums, the band was signed to Capricorn Records and released their most progressive album What If (1978), produced by Ken Scott, featuring Morse and West joined by Rod Morgenstein (drums), Mark Parrish (keyboards), and Allen Sloan (violin). After completing their first tour that year, they combined a few of the live recordings and several new pieces to create their most popular Grammy nominated album, 1979’s Night of DIxieDregs_NOTLDCover_72dpi.jpgthe Living Dregs. The opening track “Punk Sandwich,” is a perfect introduction to the band for any fan or casual listener. Rapid-fire guitar and violin leads backed by electric organ bridge the tuneful melody. The second track “Country House Shuffle” leads off with a drum solo that demonstrates Morgenstein’s apt skills. The second half of the record is punctuated by the live track “The Bash” which demonstrates one of the country-western jams that featured their signature round-robin solos. I caught the band live on this tour at some small venue in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles and it was a spectacular show from the first note to the last.

The band signed with Arista at the end of the 70s, and released an excellent follow up album, Dregs of the Earth (1980) with the talented T. Lavitz replacing departed Mark Parrish on keys. I was fortunate to see this tour as well at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, and recall being surprised that Lavitz was able to meet the challenge set by their former keys wizard. It was another exceptional concert experience.

Widespread success eluded the Dixie Dregs, though they managed to build a core following of eager admirers. As the eighties wore on, the group hoped to expand their audience by changing their name to The Dregs, after which they released Unsung Heroes (1981) and Industry Standard (1982) the latter with guest vocalists. Soon after they disbanded but have continued to stage concerts sporadically to this day. Steve Morse plied his axe during a short solo career, and also took on lead guitar duties in years since with Kansas and then Deep Purple.

DixieDregs_Live1_72dpi

ON FILM

DIxieDregs_LiveCover_72dpiFortunately, there is an excellent film of the Dixie Dregs in their prime on the tour supporting What If. This is available on DVD titled Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1978, featuring a nearly complete set from which the live half of Night of the Living Dregs was taken. The 60 minute long concert includes fourteen choice songs, captured at 144:1 aspect ratio, preserved with a fine clear image and respectable sound considering the era. The only complaint would be that there are not enough clear shots of guitarist Steve Morse, and the ones that are presented suffer from an awkward angle. By contrast there are too many shots of violinist Alan Sloan. With a group of musicians this balanced it would have been better to afford nearly equal time to each. Also there are few perspective shots that capture the entire group across the stage, something that would be helpful on those collaborative jams. Nonetheless, the footage is excellent, and it is a rare document of this important band. The DVD is rounded out by a couple of television appearances, one at “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” and a second as The Dregs on “American Bandstand,” which includes a moment of conversation with host Dick Clark. Highly recommended.

DixieDregs_Live4_72dpi

DIxieDregs_Live2_72dpi

DixieDregs_Live3_72dpi