The Dixie Dregs Lincoln Theatre Washington, DC March 7, 2018
Back in the 1970s, many aspiring young guitarists yearned to play like Eric Clapton
, Jimmy Page
or Jimi Hendrix
, but truly inspired musicians wanted to be as good as John McLaughlin
or Steve Morse
of the Dixie Dregs
(later just The Dregs). While the Mahavishnu Orchestra
and Return to Forever
defined guitar driven jazz rock fusion with an emphasis on jazz, the Dregs leaned more on the rock side, with a little country thrown in. With similar instrumentation (guitar, bass, violin, keyboards, drums) the band was often referred to as the Mahavishnu Orchestra of the South.
The group began as a Georgia high school band called Dixie Grit with Morse on guitar and Andy West
on bass, developing into the Dixie Dregs
by the time Steve left the University of Miami's School of Music in 1975 (Pat Metheny
, Jaco Pastorius
, T. Lavitz
and Bruce Hornsby
were also there). A Rolling Stone magazine article about the 1976 Free Fall
album (released on the southern rock Capricorn label) introduced the band to a wider audience, and they played together with varying degrees of commercial success, including a pair of Grammy nominations, until 1982. The band was burned out from being on the road, fusion had fallen out of style, and their record label, Arista, dropped them, so they split into individual projects.
Morse went on to play in Kansas
(1985-1991), Deep Purple (since 1994, just concluding their Last Goodbye Tour) and recording and touring in between with the Steve Morse Band. Drummer Rod Morgenstein
was a founding member of the 1980s glam-metal band Winger and has been a percussion professor at Berklee. West left the music business behind altogether and became the technology vice-president for an Arizona software company. Keyboard player Steve Davidowski
was playing with bands in North Carolina and violinist Allen Sloan
has been an anesthesiologist in North Augusta, SC. since 1987.
In 2017, with Free Fall's
40th anniversary on their minds, that particular lineup began discussing a possible reunion. Fortunately the guitarist had a gap in his 2018 Deep Purple schedule and Dr. Sloan said there has been "nothing as enriching in his life as playing Steve's music with him" and he was willing to spend a few months away from his practice doing it. "Before we even talked about doing this, we said, 'Let's just get together and play some tunes and have a private reunion'and we did that and it went very well," Morse said in a recent Improper Bostonian interview. "It is like riding a bicycle. Everybody's personality is the same. Everybody plays with the same tendencies."
The Lincoln Theatre opened in 1922 to serve the movie going African-American audiences of Washington DC, which was then segregated. After a long decline, the 1250-seat venue, now owned by the city, reopened on February 4, 1994, and since then has offered theatrical and music performances as well as political events such as the mayor's annual State of the District address.
With many anxious to hear this current incarnation of the legendary Dregs, there were few, if any, empty seats there on the chilly March night of the performance. From the first song, "Divided We Stand," one was immediately struck by how the music is united into a true group effort, even with most of it being written by Morse. And while virtuosic playing would seem to be a requirement of anyone playing this material, the melodic quality and clever arrangements of the compositions themselves are what raises the Dregs from being simply an ensemble with a hot guitarist to being a truly great band. One example of this is "Moe Down," described by West as "Aaron Copland (Hoedown) going through Keith Emerson through Steve Morse
First set highlights from an evening loaded with them were the ethereal title track to the What If
album that was "new age before it became old age" according to West; the driving "Take It Off The Top" and anthemic "Odyssey" from the same album; "Twiggs Approved" from 1980's Dregs of the Earth
and the hot pickin' "Country House Shuffle" from their first album The Great Spectacular
The second set opened with Dr Sloan's heartfelt explanation of what playing Steve's compositions meant to him, an aside about how when he got a "wild hair to go to medical school" he had to be replaced by none other than Mark O'Connor
, and then his solo violin piece dedicated to his daughter Rachel. Morse came out to play two pieces on his spare acoustic guitar (as his main one was stolen that afternoon)a duet with Allen, "Northern Lights" (from Free Fall
), followed by one of two songs the band had never played before live that are being played on this tour -the classically tinged "Go For Baroque" (from 1981's Unsung Heroes
For me the high point of the entire show was the next piece, the other song the band hadn't played live before this tour -"Day 444" (also from Unsung Heroes
). Morse has written several songs in this vein that feature beautiful evolving melodies with almost walking style arpeggiated chord changes -"Hereafter" and "Night Meets Light" are good examples -and his making the very difficult guitar parts of this tune seem almost effortless demonstrates how great a guitarist he is. His technical excellence is even more impressive given that he's fighting arthritis, which has forced him to change some of his playing style.
The rest of the set displayed how well within a group concept five flashy players can come together as one to perform difficult passages and clever arrangements of songs in such a fashion as there doesn't appear to be any showing off -there are truly no wasted notes. The crowd became even more excited as the heat of "The Bash" led into the driving "Cruise Control" (from Free Fall
) that included a unique drum solo with sampled sounds before going back into the climax of the song.
"I feel like our music is still kind of unique," said Andy West
, in a recent Indy Star interview. "There's not a lot of bands that you can say, 'That sounds like the Dregs.'"
Truer words were never spoken.
Set One 1-Divided We Stand 2-Free Fall 3-Holiday 4-Assembly Line 5-Twiggs Approved 6-Take It Off The Top 7-What If 8-Country House Shuffle 9-Moe Down 10-Odyssey
Set Two 1-Song For Rachel 2-Northern Lights 3-Go For Baroque 4-Day 444 5-Refried Funky Chicken 6-Leprechaun Promenade 7-Wages Of Weirdness 8-The Bash 9-Cruise Control > Drum solo > Cruise Control 10-Encore: Bloodsucking Leeches
Steve Morse: Guitar; Andy West: Bass; Rod Morgenstein: Drums; Steve Davidowski: Keyboards; Dr. Allen Sloan: Violin,