Return of the Dixie Dregs

DixieDregs2018_6Dixie Dregs is an American band formed in the early 1970s by guitarist Steve Morse and bassist Andy West. Their music is almost exclusively instrumental, fusing rock, country, and a bit of jazz into a potent brew that is designed to showcase each band member’s virtuosity. Their core compositions were typically rooted in traditional country & western music, 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 or so notes, 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.

DIxieDregs_NOTLDCover_72dpiAfter 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.

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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.

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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.

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So it was with only mild surprise that I saw an ad for the Dixie Dregs reunion, which we attended in Agoura California, at the Canyon Club last month. The show featured a new keyboard and saxophone player, Steve Davidowski, who joined original members Steve, Andy, Allen and Rod. The show was fantastic in every way. Morse had his hand wrapped in what looked like an injury support brace, but nothing was taken off the top of his incredible range and dexterity. Everyone played at the top of their game.

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During the run up to these shows, I heard from guys who still live in their mother’s basement, you know them, the ones who complain like “why are these old dudes out on the road again with no new material?” As if to prove any naysayers wrong, Morse and co. came to the stage on fire, nailing their leads with aplomb, showing one and all that there was and IS an instrumental band so adept at their chosen instruments, that they simply stun, even if their music was never heard before by the listener.

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To top off the experience for me, I was able to hand Steve a copy of my book, Rockin’ the City of Angels, which has a chapter on the Dixie Dregs, released last year. And while I was thanking him, I got a big surprise, one that made me burst into tears. Someone behind me exclaimed “Doug Harr?” as if they knew me. It was my long lost childhood buddy Marcus Ryle, the one in our neighborhood with the cool dad, the engineer, the cool siblings, and some real keyboards. Marcus’ dad introduced us to Moog synth music before Keith Emerson, regaling us with Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’s classical synth albums, and in particular the legendary Dick Hyman and his fanciful synth pop. Marcus was the first in our neighborhood to get his own synth and as it turns out, as I learned, went on to design them, and eventually same for guitars, sporting the Line 6 guitars at Yamaha. I will finally see him, now back from Japan, next week. Good times. Rock on.

 

Paula Frazer’s Best Yet – What Is And Was

PaulaFrazer2017_CoverSome artists labor in relative obscurity for good reason –either they are painfully shy, not promoted well, or their work just does not fit the times or the zeitgeist of the day. But there are others who are less known than they should be – sometimes so unknown that it’s somewhat criminal, and neglectful of us to allow such indifference in this interconnected world. Now, let me say, Paula Frazer might not like this characterization, but she is absolutely one of the most talented singer-songwriters in the world – the best of her kind that I’ve ever come across. And my wife does her hair in San Francisco.

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Really, I’ve sat and talked to Paula while her hair is done, and a less assuming person you will never meet. I truly think she believes she is a “average.” Yet, What Is And Was, by Paula Frazer and Tarnation is truly a masterpiece, something that seems otherworldly in it’s perfection. Songs like opener “Between the Lines” and the follow up title track sneak up on you with beguiling simplicity that unfolds into complex mastery. To realize all this, get the LP or download, and read the lyrics, check the instrumentation. This is as good as it gets.

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While Paula writes all the songs, the members of Tarnation also make this record awesome by their work. Jacob Aranda on guitar and vocals, is a key player – he is a tremendous singer-songwriter on his own accord with albums to prove it – ones that are also well worth collecting. Jacob adds electric guitar solos to the acoustic mix that make use of the tremolo arm, much as Chris Isaak before. It’s all Jacob’s own though, and it is all inspired playing. Many additional collaborators join Paula on keys, drums, vocals, pedal steel, and guitar. But as a sign of her prodigy-like status and talent, Paula writes, sings, and plays guitar, wood flute, bass, xylophone, drums, and percussion. Is that an octupple threat?

Lyrics to “Followed You There” reprinted by permission © Paula Frazer:

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New High Recordings released the album in 2017, but I got my copy from Paula’s garage. She would say, “yeah it’s okay, check it out.” I would say, bring a hanky and some ready ears –it’s unbelievably great music, and my new favorite album.

NHR describes Paula well here:
https://newhighrecordings.com/paula-frazer/

PaulaFrazer2017_RedRecordThe vinyl LP is recommended, and it comes in a red platter that adds to the album’s mystique. You can also download the album from basecamp, naming your own price. Don’t be stingy. She and her band are well worth full price!

On Red Vinyl or download
https://newhighrecs.bandcamp.com/album/what-is-and-was

What Is And Was
Paula Frazer and Tarnation
All songs written by Paula Frazer – Tarnation Music Publishing, BMI
© & (p) 2017 Paula Frazer
NewHighRecordings.com

No Words

I’m pretty sure my fellow blogger who posted this is from Australia. So I have some words he does not. When are we going to fn wake up in the US and follow Australia’s now long-ago example? Take the guns, give them voluntarily to be destroyed. Simple. Effective. Look at their murder stats – oh wait, there are hardly any to report. What soiled children we are. Peace out.

Snakes in the Grass

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Steven Wilson Plays To The Bone

Steven Wilson brought his To The Bone tour to the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco last week. It was another in a series of amazing concerts given by this gifted man and his amazing band.

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To begin the show, as is the norm at Wilson’s events, a short film was used to “warm up” the audience. However, in past years, while the films have been haunting, melancholy bits of dirge, this year the content was thought provoking, and not exactly obtuse – a bit more Talking Heads, a bit less Dario Argento. Wilson is on a new bent these days, one where his music is more straightforward, a bit less melancholy, a bit more pop. Nonetheless, dramatic subject matter and skilled performances anchored the concert, and it was exceptional.

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In order to punctuate his slightly altered musical direction, Wilson stopped between songs to say a few things about the difference between PROG and POP music. How “pop” was the original rock music, and how there should be no distain for pop, in comparison to it’s more complex, uptight brethren PROG:

“pop music has a very fine tradition… the greatest pop group of all time were The Beatles – you would not call them a rock band, you would call them a pop band. Second greatest pop band was Abba – does anyone here not like the Beatles and Abba?  You see ergo everyone likes pop music. …Pop music is not SHIT!”

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After this bit of pep, he asked the audience to dance (yes dance) to his new song, “Permanating,” a nice song in the pop genre, it must be agreed. Of the new songs, by the way, “People Who Eat Darkness” and “The Same Asylum As Before” were particularly muscular and memorable. “Pariah,” the particularly melodic song which features singer Ninet Tayeb on record, was played with her image singing her parts on the front and rear screens – a very effective use of the silk that drapes down in front of the band for part of the show. Its amazing really how such a seemingly unassuming, quiet man can command a stage and rock the s___ out of a venerable venue such as the Fillmore.

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On this tour, the set list did not include stalwarts “The Raven Who Refused To Singand Drive Home” and that was disappointing for this fan, but it’s clear that Wilson is leaning in a bit happier direction. It must be said that the set list was a nice combination of older Porcupine Tree and newer Wilson solo work.

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As with earlier tours, the lighting techniques were clever and colorful. Sound was crisp and clear, reproduced by the top-notch audio system, which sounded amazing in the acoustic-friendly Fillmore. Even with all the finery, the primary focus remained on the band members demonstrating their virtuosic skills throughout. From the increasingly well-rehearsed touring band there were complex rhythms and solos from new guitar player Alex Hutchings, electronic textures and brisk synth leads from keyboard player Adam Holzman, and a deep, thunderous bottom end and vocal harmonies from Nick Beggs on basses, paired with skilled drummer Craig Blundell.  It was plainly visible that each one of the musicians has become exceedingly adept and delivering this material. Steven delivered his poetic lyrics throughout in fine voice, alternating skillfully between guitar, bass, keys and samples. He displayed his wit and thoughtfulness between tracks as lead raconteur. These elements combined to make up a masterful set; an evening of dramatic, inspirational and at times emotionally overwhelming rock and pop music. Wilson remains at the top of the list of artists I’ve seen over these now forty years with his accomplished, expressive body of work and ability to so expressively present it all live in concert.

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Astounding, and wonderful is this artist. Check him out!