Steve Morse: Life With and Without The Dregs

John Kelman BY

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He may be best known to many as aging proto-hard rock group Deep Purple's guitarist for the past decade (not to mention time spent in the mid-'80s with a reformed Kansas), but anyone who's followed his career since the mid-'70s knows there's far more to Steve Morse than an ability to admirably shred over the familiar changes to "Smoke on the Water." And we're not just talking about his ability to pilot a commercial aircraft (a career non sequitur that was reflective of Morse's need for more stability than seemed possible as a professional musician during some lean times).

Morse attended the same University (Miami) as jazz uber-guitarist Pat Metheny in the early '70s. The two would ultimately take radically divergent musical paths, and it's a shame that Morse has never achieved even a reasonably comparable percentage of Metheny's acclaim. Part of it has to do with musical choices. Metheny's pursuance of a more jazz-centric path means that he preached, from his earliest days, to a relatively smaller choir and didn't have to kowtow to the demands of the larger machine of the rock industry. Morse's decision to stay (more-or-less) within the rock world meant that, while there were enough fans out there to appreciate his skills, the industry itself simply didn't know what to do with him.

That said, Morse's stylistically diverse compositional skills and a virtuosic ability to make even the most technically staggering lines transcend mere testosterone-driven grandstanding and sound completely musical mean that, while he's won more than his share of polls with magazines like Guitar Player, he's more than just a guitarist for guitar heads.

Nowhere is this more visible—and audible—than on two DVD releases that document his ground-breaking '70s group The Dixie Dregs and post-Dregs Steve Morse Band. The Dregs set captures the group, during one of its many creative peaks, at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival. The Steve Morse Band DVD comes largely from a Baden-Baden, Germany performance a dozen years later. Both demonstrate the perils of being a square peg in the round hole of a rock industry where trends more often than not dictate the kind of support one can get.

The Dixie Dregs
Live at Montreux 1978
Eagle Eye Media

If The Mahavishnu Orchestra had come to fusion from rock and country instead of a primarily jazz background it might have sounded something like The Dixie Dregs. Certainly, with a similar instrumental line-up—guitar, violin, keyboards, bass and drums—there are bound to be comparisons. But watching them perform a 45-minute set at Montreux, the biggest difference the viewer notices is that, as challenging as Morse's material was, The Dregs as a group was having some serious fun.

Not that the Mahavishnu Orchestra didn't enjoy itself, but there was always a pervasive air of seriousness, of consequence. The interaction and eye contact between the members of The Dregs were more reflective of a group of friends who enjoyed being together on-stage and off (something that couldn't be said for Mahavishnu Orchestra).

While there's ample solo space, it's always in the context of Morse's more detailed writing. Solo length is clearly defined (live versions of Morse's material rarely extended beyond studio versions) aligning The Dregs more closely to progressive rock than jazz, despite some linguistic links. If Gentle Giant gave Renaissance music a rock edge, then The Dregs played, as bassist Andy West describes in his intro to "Patchwork," "Avant-garde Country Music." Classical counterpoint blends with bluegrass, irregular meters and a country- rock beat to create a sound that remains unprecedented nearly thirty years later.

Morse, capable of lightning fast chicken-picking and more heavily distorted high velocity shredding, was the absolute antithesis of the '70s guitar hero. No Jimmy Page-like rock god posing or facial histrionics—no real attempt, in fact, to draw any attention to himself. The music may have been his but he clearly viewed The Dregs as a collective and collaborative affair, and that, in itself, is refreshing.

There are elements of funk and hard rock, occasional brief forays into swing alongside grace and, at times, considerable danger. The fiery "Wages of Weirdness" comes closest to Mahavishnu Orchestra territory; although Morse's clean Fender tone is a far cry from McLaughlin's fuzz-drenched screams. That Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman would ultimately become affiliated with later Dregs reunions is no surprise, though here Allen Sloan proves to be equally capable.

(L:R):Andy West, Steve Morse, Rod Morgenstein, Mark Parrish, Allen Sloan

The brief set looks and sounds as good as other releases in the Live at Montreux series, and two bonuses flesh the DVD out to about an hour. First, the group's performance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand (after dropping "Dixie" from its name) in support of Industry Standard (Arista, 1982), is a mixed bag. Featuring guest vocalist Alex Ligertwood, it was a clear (but, ultimately, failed) attempt to capture a larger audience. Notable, however, was the replacement of Sloan with a young Mark O'Connor. O'Connor has since gone on to greater fame in the country world, but here he's not just heard on violin but on guitar as well, giving the rock-funk of "Bloodsucking Leeches" added weight.

An earlier 1979 television date on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert is more in keeping with the Montreux performance, although by this time T. Lavitz had replaced Mark Parrish on keyboards.

Since the late '80s The Dixie Dregs have reunited with various line-ups, the last recorded time in 1999 for a three-night run that yielded California Screamin' (Zebra, 2000). A fine record that demonstrates there's still a place for The Dixie Dregs, the release of Live at Montreux 1978 is further evidence that this was a group that may not have achieved the success it deserved in its time but is well worth revisiting.

The Steve Morse Band
Live in Baden-Baden Germany March 1990
Eagle Eye Media

What's probably the most impressive aspect about The Steve Morse Band is how, pared down to a trio, Morse still manages to negotiate songs from The Dixie Dregs repertoire, including the balladic "Night Meets Light" and funk-edged "Ice Cakes." That he'd found a bassist in David LaRue who could simultaneously work as a rhythm partner with drummer Van Romaine and provide melodic counterpoint alongside Morse was no small reason for the surprising depth of this group. But there was more to it than that.

By the time of this 1990 German recording, Morse had become incredibly adept at constantly and seamlessly changing the tone of his guitar—so quickly, in fact, that it's hard to believe, unless one is to doubt one's own eyes—that this is one guitarist doing all the work. And if Morse was an impressive guitarist in The Dixie Dregs, here he's positively frightening. With a seemingly infinite bag of musical tricks that has expanded to include effortless harmonic runs, tapping and more, the hour-long Baden-Baden set has enough virtuosity to impress the most jaded of guitar geeks, yet possesses the kind of focus and musicality that will appeal to jazz fans unafraid of making the leap into instrumental rock music that's about more than mere pyrotechnics.

The Steve Morse Band was a harder-rocking unit than The Dixie Dregs, but Morse hadn't deserted the country flavor at the root of much his playing. "General Lee" pays tribute to Albert Lee, though one has to wonder if the great British ex-pat shouldn't be honor-bound to pay equal respect to Morse. The aptly titled "Tumeni Notes" would challenge neoclassical metal-head Yngwie Malmsteen to keep up while the equally well-titled "Point Counterpoint" is a duet for Morse and LaRue that finds both of them demonstrating a lighter touch and effortless instrumental mastery.

(L:R):Steve Morse, David LaRue

While the trio doesn't exactly swing in a jazz kind of way, there is a country swing that's underneath even the hardest rock stance. In many ways the description of Morse as "too rock for jazz" is apt, but equally one could call him "too jazz for rock," or apply any number of other label mismatches. Ultimately the best term for Morse's music here is instrumental rock, but even that's a label that doesn't do him justice. Still, this is high-volume, high-velocity music that would undoubtedly frighten away acoustic purists. But for those unconcerned with a little ear-crunching, Live in Baden-Baden is a document of Morse's growth as a writer and player.

Bonus features include four tunes from a 1984 German television broadcast with Morse's first trio featuring bassist Jerry Peek and ex-Dregs drummer Rod Morgenstein, and a music video for "Cruise Missile"—that trio's one close-call at a bonafide hit. Both are interesting, but neither as impressive or compelling as the 1990 set.

Morse continues to release records under his own name, with Living Loud and Deep Purple. He's also a sought-after guest on albums including the Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute, Visions of an Inner Mounting Apocalypse (Tone Center, 2005), and Steely Dan homage The Royal Dan. But these two DVDs are welcome releases that find Morse completely in his element and, consequently, at his best.

Live at Montreux 1978

Tracks: Freefall; Leprechaun Promenade; Country House Shuffle; Patchwork; Attila the Hun; The Bash; Night of the Living Dregs; Wages of Weirdness; Take It Off the Top; Kathreen; Dixie.

Personnel: Steve Morse: guitar; Mark Parrish: keyboards; Allen Sloan: violin; Andy West: bass; Rod Morgenstein: drums.

Feature: Approximate running time (total): 60 minutes. Bonus features: Live on American Bandstand with Dick Clark: Crank It Up; Bloodsucking Leaches; Band Interview. Live on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert: Punk Sandwich.

Live in Baden-Baden Germany March 1990

Tracks: The Introduction; General Lee; Country Colors; Sleaze Factor; Highland Wedding; Tumeni Notes; Point Counterpoint; Night Meets Light; Ice Cakes; Rock 'n' Roll Park; Pride of the Farm; Cruise Missile.

Personnel: Steve Morse: guitar; David LaRue: bass; Van Romaine: drums, percussion.

Feature: Approximate running time (Baden-Baden): 57 minutes. Bonus features (17 minutes): Ohne Filter German TV performance 1984; "Cruise Missile" video.

Photo Credits
Top and Bottom Photos: Captured from Live in Baden-Baden Germany March 1990, courtesy of Eagle Eye Media
Center Photo: Captured from Live at Montreux 1978, courtesy of Eagle Eye Media

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