Dixie 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 the 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.
Fortunately, 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.