The 2018 Reincarnation of The Dixie Dregs – Part 1
Rock, Roots, & Blues – Live
July 23, 2017
On June 26, 2017 I received a short simple e-mail from Rod Morgenstein, drummer for the Dixie Dregs, as well as Winger & Jelly Jam:
Subject: Dixie Dregs
It’s finally official – 40 years after the release of Free Fall in 1977, the first commercially released Dixie Dregs record,
he original line-up from that band will reunite in Feb ’18 to tour the U.S.
Hope all’s well,
This is the news I had been waiting for since August 2015 when I first interviewed Rod Morgenstein. That night at Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, MD, I asked him about the possibility of a Dixie Dregs reunion, and he responded that there had been occasional discussion about it and that it might happen in the next year or two (or three). I was floored and excited at the thought that a reunion was actually going to happen – being a long-time fan – as well as the thought that we had just scored a major scoop.
As it turned out, I waited nearly two years to make a public announcement. After receipt (and confirmation) of the 6/26/17 email, we made the official announcement on our social media page, (www.facebook.com/rrblive), one year and ten months after receiving the initial news back in august of 2015.
This was really going to happen! The original Free Fall lineup was going to tour, and, we got to tell the world. All five members, Rod Morgenstein, Andy West, Allen Sloan, Steve Davidowski, and Steve Morse will be taking the stage once again. Some of the greatest rock/fusion/blues/country (call it what you will) music of all time has been created by this amazingly talented group of musicians, beginning way back at The University of Miami in the early 70’s as Steve Morse’s brainchild. Rod sent over a short video clip in which he makes the announcement to the Rock, Roots, & Blues – Live fans. We promptly posted the clip in the Rock, Roots, & Blues – Live magazine (www.rrb-live.com) on July 3, 2017.
We are following this story closely and I have begun a series of interviews with the band. On July 3, 2017 I spoke to Rod Morgenstein about what he’s been up to lately, the formation of The Dixie Dregs, and what few details about the 2018 tour are known. On Saturday July 15, 2017, Dixie Dregs bassist Andy West called and we had a great conversation regarding the upcoming practice and tour schedule for the original five-member super group and the concept behind the tour. On Saturday July 22, 2017 I spoke with Steve Morse about the upcoming plans and the making of Free Fall, and on Sunday, July 23, 2017 I spoke to Steve Davidowski, the keyboardist on the Free Fall album. We hope to talk to Allen Sloan soon as well. Stay tuned to Rock, Roots, & Blues – Live for additions to this initial set of interviews as well as coverage of the Dixie Dregs as they prepare to tour. Many thanks to Rod Morgenstein, Steve Morse, Andy West, and Steve Davidowski for taking time to talk with me over the past several days.
WHAT HAVE THE GUYS BEEN UP TO?
Rock, Roots, & Blues – Live (RRB): Hi Rod. So, how are you?
Rod Morgenstein (RM): Good. I’ve been touring a fair amount with Winger. I have a couple of weeks home. We do ‘1, 2, 3’ shows a week – they’re all fly-in dates, so come the middle of July, they’ll be three weeks in a row doing that and that the day that I get home I pretty much have to pack my things and leave the next morning for rehearsals for a couple of weeks with Jelly Jam. Then I’ll get home in the middle of August with only a couple of weeks before the Berklee School year starts in Boston – I live on Long Island so it’s a 240 mile trek, 30 weeks a year. And as soon as I get back in the middle of August then I’ll start really focusing on re-familiarizing myself with all the Dregs music. The tour will begin in early March.
RRB: HI Andy. First of all it’s great to talk to you. I’ve been a fan forever.
AW: Thank you, I appreciate that very much.
RRB: So, what have you been up to?
AW: So, there is a massively long story – Since that time, I did do a transition to a different career in the software business but always played music continuously. Even back in the day before all the digital stuff, I managed to get myself on more than a handful of albums and I’ve always written music myself, but I’ve just maintained a lifelong love and interest in music and certainly a friendship with these guys. It’s all in synch.
RRB: Steve, thank you very much for calling. It’s a pleasure to talk to you. What keeps you with Deep Purple? It’s a 180 degree difference from The Dregs and the classical / jazz music.
SM: Well – it is different. It’s a different emphasis; the emphasis is on the feel as opposed to the whole intellectual positioning of things and arrangement. The Purple stuff is more of a feel. Those guys are so good at it, it’s wonderful. And I guess it’s having such a good rapport with a lead singer. We just have a great vibe together on stage. I grew up on rock and roll mainly so I guess it’s just sort of an unfulfilled dream to be in a band like that.
RRB: Well, you stepped right into it and are crushing it and you’re out there doing it. It must feel great.
SM: We have a good chemistry and ability to work together. I am keenly aware that there’s a certain base of fans that realize I’m not Ritchie Blackmore (laughing). And, oddly enough, with the anonymity of the Internet, some have actually let me know that (laughing).
RRB: Hi Steve [Davidowski]. Thanks for taking some time to talk to me.
SD: I’m glad to do it.
RRB: So, what have you been up to for the last forty years?
SD: I’ve been playing. After I left the Dregs I worked with Vassar Clements. Then I played with Jerry Reed for two years and then I played with David Alan Coe, I say ‘survived’ David Alan Coe for a year. I just hung in Nashville, and then I went to the Caymans and played with a rock band down there for about a year. After that I was ready to come back to my roots here in North Carolina. My mom was from here. I’ve just been playing local gigs and concerts. In other words, I’ve been semi-retired, while the other guys are keeping their chops up on the circuit, mine are deteriorating. Now, I’ve have a big order. It’s like jumping off a cliff. I’m really practicing to get my chops up to the level that they need to be to play that fast again, though we’ll never be as fast as we were at twenty-five. You know what the Dregs music requires.
RRB: Do you work at anything else besides music?
SD: No, I just play gigs.
RRB: Well, that’s great. So, I don’t know the story about why you ended up leaving The Dixie Dregs. Can you tell me?
SD: Well, our personalities were very different. I loved everybody in the band and we were all composers and I became frustrated. There was no space for me to compose and I wasn’t really putting myself into it anymore. Then I moved to Athens and they sensed that I wasn’t putting my heart into it anymore. I had two years with them, but I was ready to do my own thing.
RRB: So it was a mutual parting?
SD: Yes. I definitely wasn’t doing what they needed and they wanted to get somebody else, which I totally understood. One thing, the traveling conditions weren’t great. We were in Twiggs’ [Lyndon] truck. He joined us from the Allman Brothers Band. Steve and he were real close. We moved to traveling in this damn truck. It was like a medium size delivery truck. So one third was where the band traveled and the rest was for equipment. There were no windows in this thing and Twiggs lined the back cab window with rug. We would slither in like snakes, and when we arrived at a gig, it was very undignified, because we had to slither back out, but Twiggs loved it because he had his boys all in his truck. I was an outdoor guy and I really didn’t like it. But, parts of it were great. I loved all the personalities in the band because we were so diverse. Allen and Rod man, they were just a constant source of fun for me.
ON THE 2018 TOUR
RRB: Rod, since we last spoke, Andy West posted a statement on the Dixie Dregs Facebook page that addressed the chatter about what he called the ‘reincarnation’ of the Dixie Dregs, including that he “can’t abide by the term ‘reuniting’“, and that there would be a tour in March that was “distinctly practical”, stemming from the love of the music and of the fans.
RM: Oh, yes. Did he say why he preferred that term? I know he doesn’t like the term ‘reunion’.
RRB: No, he didn’t really explain why. Also, the Dixie Dregs website now has listed three tentative tour dates in March: Orlando, Atlanta, and Boston. So, other than these three cities, do you have any more information on dates?
RM: That’s it. The first leg that will be in March will probably be three and a half weeks up and down the east coast. I’m not sure how far it will go in. I’m guessing maybe Chicago. Then in April we are planning another two and a half weeks, so maybe that will hit out west.
RRB: Andy, let’s jump right in about the reincarnation of the Dixie Dregs. I’m guessing I know why you prefer that term to ‘reunion’, but please share your thoughts.
AW: Well, it’s really simple. It’s irrational. It feels like it was another life-time and we’re still somehow the same people. And then the other thing is ‘reunited’ is used a lot and I can’t get that stupid pop song from the 70s out of my head [laughing] when I hear that.
RRB: Now I have it my head! (laughing). I was also thinking that since there have been other forms and incarnations of the Dixie Dregs too…?
AW: That’s true. This one is different, yet the same. But it is different. The first run of the six albums that I played on were certainly marked from a very early beginning to a definitive change and end, and then there were various things we started and happened since then. This one is more or less directly visiting a different time, but now. It’s kind of a Zen thing, you know, you make these big long journeys and then return where you started.
RRB: Steve, Let’s jump right in. Can you tell me, from your perspective, how the plans for this tour came about?
Steve Morse (SM): Well, we [the Dixie Dregs] were finishing up a tour in 2009 and we only had a couple of gigs left when I got a call one morning and found out my dad was on life support. So I flew home and that was the last time we played together. Right after that, when the next tour came around, T. [Lavitz] had died and we just never got the momentum back. You know, it seemed really weird to have a substitute for a reunion. We talked about it and then Andy e-mailed us all and said that Mark Parish had died, who played keyboard on What If and Night of the Living Dregs, and Frank [Solomon –Dixie Dregs manager] or Andy said they were in touch with Steve Davidowski, the keyboard player on Free Fall. So, Frank was really pushing it, and Frank and Rod are really close, and they were talking about it and Andy got with us and somehow, somehow we got in touch with Allen, who can be really hard to reach. So, that’s how it happened for me.
RRB: And you just happened to have some time in your super-busy schedule?
SM: It was more like Frank just kept pursuing it until he got the manager from Deep Purple to let him know that there was a big hole in the schedule and before I even really knew about it, Frank had already set this whole thing up. Now, I’ve been touring for an entire year, and I need time off too, so it was all a bit stressful at first for me.
RRB: How do you keep your energy level up Steve? You’ve been doing it for so long now.
SM: It’s the music. That’s the good thing. It’s the traveling that takes it out of you, but having the Dregs reunion is one of the things on my musical bucket list. It was priority.
RRB: So what are you looking forward to about the tour the most? Is it getting back together and playing with these guys again? Is it playing the music live for an audience?
SM: I think it’s great – it is reliving old times – it is the same people with the same personalities, all with a lifetime of experience in between. We did get together and play [January, 2017] and that was probably one of the best things. No expectations. No YouTube. No reviews. Just play, and play songs without knowing what it is going to sound like and be able to hear it for the first time in forty years.
RRB: So, about the tour Andy. I understand a lot of things are not nailed down yet, but I’d love to know what you can share with me other than the three cities [Orlando, Atlanta, & Boston] listed on the web site.
AW: Well, there’s kind of a practical side to this. Steve is a core member of Deep Purple and Flying Colors, and he has infinite commitment possibilities, let’s say, but some of them are very firm. Also, and not to speak too much for him, but just to maintain sanity, when you have that type of environment of many different things drawing on your attention, you have to pick and choose the focus you want to have. This one apparently just fell into place where it might be a good time to do this. The constraints are largely time based, and so the choices of how long we do something, where we do it, and when, are dictated by those circumstances. And it’s great seeing people on Facebook saying, “please play here”. I love that. But there is just a practical side to it. We have a limited amount of time. So, it naturally kind-of falls into an east-coastish type of journey. It’s really a fanciful enterprise, if you will. We’ll going to probably do about three weeks of touring in March. We’re going to try and hit as many places up and down the east coast. The other thing about it is, we’re trying to ensure a different kind of environment than perhaps we’ve had in the past – more of a sit down concert environment where we can still have the energy and the communication with the audience. You know, we were a bar band. We played a million bars up and down the coast. We really wanted to try and focus on these more intimate, theater type environments and see how that works. So, I still don’t have any details on this, it’s just the conceptual idea we’re going with.
RRB: So where will you guys be practicing?
RM: The main rehearsing with the Dixie for the tour will be somewhere between the two weeks before the tour begins. We’ll probably do a week of extensive practicing down in Florida at Steve Morse’s place but before then different configurations of the band will get together to work on things. I mean, we are going to go to great lengths to make sure that everybody is so well rehearsed. Especially the guys who haven’t been in fusion mode for some time. Steve Davidowski hasn’t played the Dregs music since 1978 so it’s been 40 years of him going off and doing what he’s been doing – he’s a trained jazz musician – the music of the Dixie Dregs is more of a composed, almost a classical approach where there’s a lot of set parts, of course there is opening up and soloing, but there are a lot of set parts, that’s what creates all of these beautiful melodies and counter-point melodies happening. So Steve is already at it work learning a lot of the material, just trying to get back in that frame of mind. Obviously, Steve [Morse] wrote the music, so he has it in his head, he just has to sort of start reworking everything with his fingers. I’ve been a full time musician all of these years. I feel, you know, I feel a drummer, in many ways, has an easier time learning the music. If a melody is not played as the melody people won’t recognize it, but if a drummer hits a different surface or changes the beat a little bit or doesn’t play the same fill it does not affect people recognizing the song. So there is more freedom in the drumming of popular music, than there is with, in the case of the Dregs, the violin or the keyboards or the bass or the guitar. They have to play very specific things. That’s not to say that at times I don’t play very specific things because I do, but if I hit a different symbol than I did last time, nobody’s going to give me a dirty look and say ‘Hey, that’s not the symbol you’re supposed to play’.
RRB: So you put out a request for song suggestions on the Dixie Dregs Facebook page. You are going to get flooded…
AW: Oh yeah – I love it! It’s already happening.
RRB: So there must be a few core songs that you know you are going to play?
AW: So, part of it was ‘what can we play?’ The truth of it is that when we did this stuff [40 years ago] there was a kind of athleticism to some of it that was definitely founded in that time. So, I‘m not going to think of any particular song because a part of me says, yeah, we could play any song if we just worked on it enough, right? But there is some consideration like, ‘what did Steve Davidowski play on that we can pull from?’ Certainly that’s a good foundation, but we also want to do songs from all of the material. When we did our first album, we actually had three albums worth of material and some of that stuff got spread across all of those six albums. Then, Steve was continually writing too. Everyone in the band has their favorites. We all kind of love the long form symphonic pieces that Steve writes, like “Night Meets Light”, “Hereafter”, “Day 444”, and there are some things, while never say never, but like “I’m Freaking Out” for example with T. [Lavitz]. It was such a T. oriented thing. I just remember that one in particular being oriented in a different way, and, it was really fast (laughing), and that would be a stretch for me in some ways. We want to do a set of things that is possible. Certainly everything people are mentioning, nothing is off the table. I haven’t talked to the guys about it yet, but I kind of like the idea of ‘here is what we’re playing, go listen to it before you come so you can remember what they are.’
RRB: Are you having to do that yourself, to refresh yourself with this music from forty years ago?
AW: Oh yeah, of course. Some of this stuff I haven’t touched in thirty years.
RRB: How does that work? Is it easy? Is it hard? Is it like finding an old friend?
AW: Some of it is kind of actually just in your fingers. Some of these things I played so much, that picking them up, I can get pieces and parts of them just by re-imagining them, you know, it’s right there. Other parts are like ‘what were those notes again? How did that go?’
RRB: Steve, the tour will be just existing music, right? Is there any new Dregs music floating around ion your head?
SM: Well, we don’t have a ton of time to practice, so that’s why there won’t be a lot of new music. We’ll be solidifying an entire shows worth of material in the time it would take us to put together one complex tune. But we have a few surprises. We are going to try and play some things that have never been played live.
RRB: Can you share or are you keeping that under wraps?
SM: I don’t know if it’s going to work. There are three different possibilities. There will be some surprises. One of the possibilities of tunes that we’ve never played live is “Day 444”. It’s one of my favorite compositions; it just takes a real production to pull that off. We don’t use tapes or anything, it’s all going to have to be real.
HOW THE BAND CAME TO BE
RRB: Rod, can you explain how you came to be part of the band?
RM: Sure. Steve Morse and Andy West met in high school in Augusta, GA in the late 60’s or early 1970, and they became friends and started a band called Dixie Grit, and after a while, Dixie Grit broke up, and Andy and Steve were the remaining members, so, I don’t know which one of them came up with it, but one of them said ‘Hey, I guess we are the dregs of Dixie Grit. So they continued on getting some other local musicians and called themselves the Dixie Dregs.
I am a Long Island [N.Y.] boy, so for the first two years of college I went to a community college - Nassau Community College – on Long island and majored in music. When I was finished with the two years, one of the teachers who really was a very inspiring musician and mentor he suggested that I go to the University of Miami. He had gone there and said they had a wonderful music program and they focused on jazz and contemporary music not just classical music, so I went there for my third and fourth year. I am trying to remember if it was the end of my third year, or the beginning of my senior year, I was in like a quandary because I loved piano so much, but I had no concept of how things worked in jazz. I truly thought that after the head of a song is played, and when the soloing begins, it was more like a free-for-all, where if you’re playing piano, you just sort of hit weird notes while the sax player, or whoever is going “badoom da doodalee dodoadooo…” I had no the solos were happening over changes that were the same changes as in the head, you know the verses and bridges and choruses of the jazz tunes. So, I was able to work it out that even though I got in as a drum set player, they let me study jazz piano with this amazing jazz piano teacher there named Vince Lawrence.
I also took jazz keyboard group classes, and so I was in an introduction to improvisation class on piano, of which there were maybe only two or three piano players, but like a dozen guitar players, all playing hollow body Gibson or Gretsch guitars with all the treble off so they could sound like their favorite jazz guitarists, but there was one guy, who played a beat up Fender Telecaster and he didn’t sound like anybody else and certainly wasn’t playing the stop, bee-bop lines that everybody else was playing. That was Steve Morse. I was admiring him and his playing from afar, we didn’t know each other, and one day several weeks into the class Steve came up to me and said, “Hey, I hear you play the drums. Could you fill in for my band’s drummer, because he is a surfer and he hurt himself?” I said, “Sure.” I showed up to the rehearsal and literally thought I’d died and went to heaven because it was the Dixie Dregs, and the cover songs that they were playing were Mahavishnu Orchestra covers, Allman Brothers, “Peaches and Regalia” by Frank Zappa, and Steve Morse originals which some of the songs from way back when were “Country House Shuffle” and “Odyssey”, which I think Steve had written when he was sixteen years old, and that’s how I got involved with them. Ultimately the surfer who was playing drums with them, he was a really good drummer, his name was Bart Yarnold, he kind of bowed out of it because the fusion thing was not his thing. So the band was Steve, and Allen Sloan, who was also a music student down there, myself, and for one semester, Andy West was playing bass and then he went back to Augusta for the other semester. Funny enough, do you know the name Hiram Bullock?
RRB: I do. He was in the David Letterman band, right?
RM: Yeah – he was the original guitarist on the Letterman show. So he was a student down there and so he filled in on bass for one semester. And then the piano player’s name was Frank Joseph, and he played on the demo we made called The Great Spectacular. We used that album to try and get gigs where we’d send the album all over the southeast to clubs and we’d try to get a record deal. So, come the end of the summer of 1975, when Steve and Allen and I graduated, all of us started talking about, “Well, what are you doing for the rest of your life? What’s your next step?” So we decided to give it a shot. So Steve and Andy and Steve Davidowski were from Augusta, and Allen Sloan who was from Miami Beach and I from New York, moved to Augusta, GA and that’s where it began really full-time in the fall of 1975.
RRB: Steve, what were your impressions of Rod when you first met?
SM: Just a great guy and really smart. We were in an improv class and he instantly knew what the teacher was after. He was just a natural. So I was thinking about him as a keyboard player. Then Hiram Bullock, another guitarist that I was friends with, told me, “I did a gig with this guy and he was a really, really good drummer, unusual. He plays very musically”. So I asked, “Who is it?” and he said, “Rod Morgenstein”. “Oh, ok, I’ll have to listen out for him.” Then in class I put together the fact that Rod Morgenstein was Rod (the piano player from class) and he was a drummer. So I remember asking him if he wanted to be in this small group I was trying to organize. We were going to do some stuff outside of jazz, outside of the strict bee-bop jazz they were learning in school. He said “Sure”. I asked him if he could play drums too and he said, “Sure”. It was just like no big deal…keyboards, drums, whatever. He envisions music and he plays it like music, not like beats.
RRB: The last time I saw Rod was with Jelly Jam, and he is amazing, his passion and enthusiasm, it’s just fun to watch.
SM: Yeah. He is super important part of the whole chemistry. Rod was like the glue and Andy was more-or-less, in a way, the leader, in a big way. He is super smart. He was able to see trends happening and he was just not afraid. I remember one time we were going to New York City. We brought some albums with us. He and I were just schemers. Anything I thought of, that was just crazy, he would just go along with it. Not because we thought it was crazy but because we both thought it was doable. For instance. I had just got my license and has leased an ancient horrible airplane. It was just barely able to fly, but it was affordable. I leased it for the summer and I said, “We could actually fly the albums up there and go into Manhattan and try and find a manager or a record company or a booking agent” and so we set off. The weather wasn’t good, so I landed in this little field for crop dusters. I couldn’t go any further. So, we spent the night there, just sleeping in a car there. It was horrible, the mosquitoes and everything. It was really uncomfortable. The next morning I told him that “We were low on fuel, I don’t know if the plane is going to get out of here”. It was a very short airstrip. ‘Why don’t you wait here and I’ll go and get gas and come back and get you? Or, I can take off and see if it’s ok and land real quick.” Andy said, “No man. I’m going with you”. That’s the way he was. We were so young that we weren’t wise, but we were gung-ho.
RRB: He didn’t want to miss it.
SM: Right! We made it, but with not a lot to spare! The weather was horrible, so we got as close as we could, landed, and ended up taking a bus the rest of the way, with the records. We did visit some people and got a taste of the big city.
RRB: So, I know you’ve known Steve a long time, but what were your impressions when you met him, and when you met Rod, for the first time?
AW: That certainly goes way back. The thing is, at that age, everything is new and wide open and interesting. But Steve is definitely a special case, and certainly when I met him in high school and we started hanging out, I mean, just kind of from that point forward he’s been just ahead of the curve, in terms of all the people I knew and listened to. As time went on and he grew to be much more of an astonishing player and composer, it was pretty easy to just be part of that. There’s a lot of circumstantial stuff that went into this. We met in high school, and he went to Miami because he had heard there was a great classical guitarist there that he had heard in Augusta. All of this just fell into place. In Miami he [Steve] met Rod and Allen. Then the move to Augusta, and back to Miami, and on and on. There are a lot of serendipitous things that happen that lead to a connection to where people start hanging out together. That’s pretty much what happened to us.
ON MAKING MUSIC AND THE FREE FALL ALBUM
RRB: What do you remember about the recording of the Free Fall album? What jumps to mind when you think of that time?
RM: Well, first off, for all of us – it was the first time flying to California and staying a month out there, so that was very exciting, being in our early to mid-twenties and spending so much time in a LA recording studio. I have a very funny memory; we were cutting the drums to “Hoe Down” which is the country song on the record, usually the country song is the least show-offy for the drums, you are kind of keeping a simple beat going. So while I’m playing and they’re recording, I see the door to the control room open up and Ringo Starr walks in. So my eyes nearly popped out of my head, for two reasons. He is my inspiration for becoming a drummer. When the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 I was glued to the television and it was a life changing moment for me. That was one of the reactions I was having just being so close to this iconic celebrity, but the other thought was, “I can’t believe he’s watching me play an oompah beat”. When you’re young you’re so full of wanting to show people what you can do, you know, maybe insecurity wants you to kind of show off a little bit if you can. I can’t believe I was having those kind of thoughts. I can’t believe he couldn’t have walked in when we were recording “Wages of Weirdness” or one of the other songs, but it was truly a thrill to meet him.
RRB: This tour will be amazing. I am really excited. I remember when I first heard Free Fall, you guys just blew my mind.
RM: Thanks. For me, what really sets the band apart from other artists, in whatever you want to call the genre, is the fact that the music is so special and individual. Steve Morse’s writing – it’s unlike anyone else and there was always the concern for the audience never being left behind with it. When you have instrumental music, you’re not going to have somebody singing where, in the lyrics, the second verse is different than the first, so in the arrangements of the songs, Steve was always sensitive to have things be a little different as a new section comes in. The idea was that people, whether they are musicians or not, could just be drawn into this beautiful melodic music. For me, because this kind of thinking always went into the creation of the songs, I think it helped establish the band as having somewhat of its own voice.
RRB: It must have been daunting to do multiple albums that were all instrumental?
RM: So much of this has to go to Steve Morse. He’s the one that deserves so much credit. I don’t know how a human being can have so much music in them. And this type of music, these are more like in depth classical compositions, compositionally there is so much that’s interesting going on. The other thing is that in a lot of the songs, it’s deliberate not having extended solos. A lot of times in fusion bands I think listeners who are not serious musicians go ‘you know, the musicians seem as if they are in it for themselves’. They are great players and such, but I want to hear a song, I just don’t want to do a five minute solo. The composition is the important thing, and in controlled doses you’ll hear these guys solo in various sections.
RRB: I always enjoyed that about the music – it was an ensemble – it was, like you said, orchestral. It had its own life.
RM: It sure did.
RRB: Steve [Davidowski], is there a favorite tune of yours on Free Fall?
SD: I enjoyed playing a little soprano on 'Cosmopolitan Traveller". I liked the title song, “Free Fall”. I had this Odyssey which was a different synthesizer than I think Steve was used to. He was used to Moogs, I don’t think Steve was crazy about the bird sound I used on that (laughing), but they kept it in.
RRB: It must have been a pretty dynamic scene when you would show up and show the guys what was in your head? Andy mentioned that while there was a feedback loop when creating the music, for the most part what you showed up with were finished, composed pieces.
SM: Well, yes and no. I had an idea. The fleshing out of it – sometimes as soon as we tried four bars of what I thought, sometimes we’d say, “Ok, hold on. Let’s change that”, and on the spot I would change it. Before the guys really learned it I’d change it if, for some reason, it wasn’t sounding good. When I say ‘for some reason’, most of the time I would wait until the music feels special before moving on to the next piece. If it sounds okay, but it wasn’t okay, it had to have something unique or special to me before I could even consider it playable.
RRB: So is there anything that stands out in your memory about the making of Free Fall?
SM: I wasn’t loving the way that it sounded as much as I thought I would. We had already recorded most of this stuff in free/super low budget settings. The record company said “No, you have to have a producer; No, you have to go to the big city. You have to have somebody else tell you how to do it.” We came in there knowing every note. The songs were done. Just start recording. I just remember thinking that there is no way anyone can come from the outside and care as much about each note as I do. That was a little bit of a rude awakening for me. How much control the record company has over the way things turn out. And in their minds, “These are kids. They don’t know what they are doing”.
Luckily the second and third albums were a huge learning experience for me, because Ken Scott got the meticulousness about what we were after. He was just such a great mentor for me. Stuart Levine was the producer on Free Fall, he was a great vibe guy and he got the music, and he got it. Let’s get a good feel and everything. That was his forte, capturing a good performance. But the kind of attention to detail for each sound and some layering and things like that was harder to get him interested in because he was more of a jazz guy. The feel of the jazz is the whole thing. This was more production, more meticulous attention to each part.
It sort of ended in disappointment for me. I put my motorcycle in with the equipment, I was going to stay and watch over the mixing. Then I was going to ride my motorcycle across the country back to Georgia. We had some gigs and they were dragging their feet on the mix. So by the time the mixes were done I didn’t have time to get back so I had the motorcycle stuck in L.A. and had to get back for the gigs. So, with all the money I could muster, I paid a motorcycle shop to crate up my motorcycle and put it on a truck. So it just ended with me bewildered and beaten.
RRB: An on an airplane headed to a gig.
SM: Yeah, and the airplane ticket was a lot more than my gas budget was going to be.
RRB: And – you missed that down time you were planning on the trip across the country.
SM: Definitely. That’s how the whole recording ended up for me. Then when we heard it, it didn’t sound like I thought it would, just real raw. It didn’t have the amazing stereo sound where everything tickles your ears. And it wasn’t that Stuart did a bad job by any means, he just took a jazz approach.
RRB: Steve, I really appreciate your time. I could talk to you for hours.
SM: Well let’s do this again as more things fall into place for the tour.
RRB: I would love that. Thanks a lot Steve.
SM: Ok, we’ll talk again soon..
Parts 2 of this piece will appear in the next edition of Rock, Roots, & Blues - Live.
Hopefully, a few surprises, to come in the very near future as well!