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The last thing renowned guitarist Steve Morse did before heading off to an opening night soundcheck for the 2018 Dixie Dregs reunion tour was take a call from The Newtown Bee.
As he waited to be called on stage, he was excited to get this latest tour on the road, and was looking forward to the upcoming tour stop at The Ridgefield Playhouse.
The six-time Grammy-nominated jazz-rock virtuosos are bringing their “Dawn of the Dregs” tour to The Playhouse Wednesday, March 14, at 8 pm, featuring the original lineup behind the 1977 album Free Fall, keyboardist / saxophonist Steve Davidowski, guitarist Morse, bassist Andy West, drummer Rod Morgenstein, and violinist Allen Sloan.
The original lineup of the band formed in 1970 and gained notice for its instrumental prowess, which featured moments of Prog, classical, jazz, and Southern rock. In an advance, bassist Andy West said he and his bandmates stay motivated to keep the Dregs alive because they love to play and the fans keep coming out and packing theaters for live shows.
“This tour is the result of the overwhelming requests we’ve received from a loyal audience of diehard Dregheads, and new fans who have never seen us perform live, but discovered the band for the first time through Steve’s membership in Deep Purple, or Rod as the drummer for Winger,” said West. “We can’t wait to play for them all.”
For guitar aficionados, Morse needs no introduction, and his place in the pantheon of guitar greats is firmly embedded. His career started with the Dixie Dregs, which traces its true beginnings to the band Dixie Grit, which started in a Georgia high school with Steve on guitar and West on bass.
Dixie Grit morphed into the Dixie Dregs at the University of Miami, School of Music, where violinist Sloan and drummer Morgenstein joined up with Morse and West, who were the self-described “dregs” of their former band Dixie Grit.
The members of the Dixie Dregs remained committed to attending the University of Miami, School of Music, which hosted a lively and talented musical community during their tenure, including future greats Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, T Lavitz, and Bruce Hornsby. In 1975, the group’s demo album, The Great Spectacular, was recorded at the University of Miami and then rereleased on CD in 1997.
After graduation, the band moved back to Augusta where keyboardist Davidowski completed the band that would eventually emerge and become known simply as The Dregs. The band established itself in the firmament of American instrumental music, seamlessly fusing rock with progressive and jazz elements to create a uniquely instrument-driven style that has stood the test of time.
Based on a short demo and a tip from former Allman Brothers keyboardist Chuck Leavell along with legendary Allman/Dregs tour manager Twiggs Lyndon, Capricorn Records signed the Dixie Dregs to record Free Fall in 1977. The success and critical acclaim of Free Fall announced the Dregs to the world, and after its release, they would become a cult favorite that would have a lasting influence.
During his brief call before hurrying off to his tour opening sound check, Morse talked about the group’s history, song writing process, and how their instrumental prowess has served them well for nearly a half-century.
The Bee: I wanted to start way back at the beginning. When so much of the commercial music featured vocals, what made you and the guys start out and almost exclusively stick to an instrumental formula?
Steve Morse: For me it was the writing, especially writing counterpoint — it so much more lends itself to instrumentals. When you have music with vocals, it’s always about laying all that busy stuff under the vocals because everything should revolve around what [the singer is] doing. And if there are three verses in a song, they always want the background to sound exactly the same each time around. But that isn’t the kind of music I write.
The Bee: What are your recollections of the events leading up to the period when the band decided to add vocals?
Morse: It all fell on our management, who were a bunch of lawyers. We were just a bunch of numbers to them. And we came to a point where we were ready for a new manager because we were just out there doing the same circuit all the time. So they said on the next record, if we did songs with vocals and things didn’t change as far as sales, they would release us from our contract. So we did, and the challenge was how do you write music that sounds like the Dregs, but with vocals. That was a unique situation for us, but we embraced it and we had a good time with it. So it turned out that our album Industry Standard had two songs with vocals on it. And it didn’t make a difference, so we got out of the contract. Because the band’s identity was never as a mainstream act.
The Bee: Did the fans embrace this one-shot detour?
Morse: I think our fans were tolerant, and one of the songs, “Crank It Up,” did get some airplay. There were a lot of riffs and complexities to the tunes, and it sounded like us, but I think trying to add vocals was a confusing factor for some. It was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to make much of a difference for us in terms of our place in the music business, and when we played live, we actually played a recording of the vocals and brought a dummy upon the stage in a Dregs T-shirt (laughing).
The Bee: The instrumental material I’ve heard is so complex, and I think that’s what makes it so compelling. I’m interested to learn the process by which you guys build the tunes and arrangements over the years.
Morse: In the early days I would write out a complete chart and take my best guess as to what might work. Later on, when we had more practice time, and we were starving artists in Augusta or Atlanta, we would have band practice and I’d throw out some ideas, and one or more of the guys would say, let me take it home and work on it a bit. Or everybody else would leave and I would sit down with one of the guys and work on it for five or ten minutes to try and get it right, and sure enough they would. And we’d do that with each section. On the spot, if they were playing something, I’d play another part to see if it would fit, and if it fit well we’d leave it — if it didn’t we’d change it.
The Bee: I imagine some of that give and take had to end up being better than the original idea.
Morse: I’d say about 75 percent of the time what I brought in thinking it would work, did work. But once in a while the changes would create a place where the bass line was clashing with the keyboard part, and we’d keep fiddling until we got it right.
The Bee: Did any of the many members who have come and gone over the years try to introduce, or influence a change to the successful way The Dixie Dregs write, arrange, or record?
Morse: Sure, but it wasn’t intentional, but I was so intense and overbearing that I would keep everybody consumed with the stuff I brought in (laughing). I really didn’t give them much of a chance. I didn’t mean to be overbearing, but I guess it just turned out that way.
The Bee: Do you find your most loyal fan base is made up of musicians?
Morse: I think there was a phase when we were drawing a lot of musicians because most of the press about us was appearing in musicians’ magazines. But I think our truest fans are audiophiles. They may be musicians, too, but we appeal to people with eclectic listening tastes. They instinctively knew they weren’t going to be hearing any of what we were producing on the radio.
The Bee: Are you planning to draw your setlist from a body of work that will potentially change nightly?
Morse: The setlist is pretty firm. We have 23 compositions to choose from and we’re probably doing 18 or 19 to choose from each night. So we’ll rotate a few songs but it will be pretty much the same night to night.
The Bee: Throughout the times you weren’t playing in the band, did you often or ever sit down to write and come up with material that you decided to specifically shelve until another opportunity came up to spring it on your Dregs bandmates?
Morse: As I was writing over the years in between, there were always bits and pieces I would come up with that I thought would be perfect for the Dregs. But with any piece of music, one small change could also make it perfect for something else. I’d write little pieces for TV projects — little background things — and I had a lot of opportunities to write a lot of those little background things and use my musical ideas in a lot of different ways. But you write for the job you have in front of you in the moment.
The Bee: I see from your website that you are playing Ernie Ball Music Man guitars, outfitted with your signature DiMarzio pickups, and ENGL amplifiers. But in terms of effects, are you still carting around any analog pedals — or is everything either pedal or rack-mounted digital now?
Morse: I’m using TC delays and reverb. It’s amazing how pedals have taken the place of equipment that we used to have to drag around in racks. These pedals and their processors are that good. I don’t know how they do it, but I guess it’s the age of miniaturization.
The Bee: What are a couple of the Dregs songs that you are looking forward to rolling out again for this tour, and what is it about them that make then so much fun to play night after night?
Morse: We do the “Wabash Cannonball” — we call it “The Bash” — which is kind of a medley of country and bluegrass licks that we put together. And I was really looking forward the most to playing a song called “Day 444,” an intricate ballad that we recorded but we never played live. We’re also doing “Go For Baroque,” which we never did as a live piece as well. It’s based on classical guitar, and we’re doing that one live. This is not only an opportunity to see the band, but it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see us play some material we never tried to do live before, probably because we put some of those tunes together in pieces and the guys never had a chance to get them under their fingers together in an entire arrangement. And if you’ve seen every tour, there will still be some things in this tour that you have never seen.
The Bee: Are there any musical periods with the Dregs that will be not be represented on this tour, or will you try to push as many fans’ buttons as possible by trying to hit something from almost every album?
Morse: It wasn’t as much about hitting material from certain albums. The guys always let me make the setlist, and they are generally more concerned about the high energy classic tunes that we always played, and what kind of tempos we surround those with. And then we have to think about the arrangements. You always arrange for the guys in the band at the time when you’re recording, so we did have to change some of the arrangements to fit the guys who are in the band for this tour.
The Bee: Has the aging process outpaced any of the songs you guys used to love to play — and become just a little too challenging to handle on a nightly basis?
Morse: No, you’ll be hearing us play some really difficult stuff. We’re hoping that we have improved with age, and I think we have (laughing). We’ve got some really difficult stuff lined up, so you have to come to the show and check it out!
For tickets to the reunion tour of The Dixie Dregs ($75 Gold Circle, $67 Orchestra, $57 Mezz/Balcony), call or visit the box office, 203-438-5795 or go online at ridgefieldplayhouse.org. The Ridgefield Playhouse is a nonprofit performing arts center located at 80 East Ridge, parallel to Main Street.
Check out The Dixie Dregs’ encore on opening night of their 2018 “Dawn of the Dregs” tour in Clearwater, Fla. (shortly after the above interview concluded)
The Dixie Dregs perform “Odyssey” at The House of Blues in 2000