Man, I have listened to a lot of crap in my life…and loved it, pored over it, married it, let it perform cultural violences upon me. Should I regret it? Could a hipster have designed a better program for a better me? I put myself to sleep every night for three years with the same three Kansas albums stacked on my automatic record changer, letting a pale American simulacrum of the already-dubious British castle-rock style write my dream code and program a set of musical values that would keep me, for the better part of 25 years, from finding anything at all to like about the Velvet Underground. Imagine how many reindeer games I was excluded from because of that!
But Kansas wasn’t an accident for me, or an arranged marriage in which I had no agency. Yes, music was harder to come by at the time, and you were mostly stuck with the records strewn on your bedroom floor, with what you could afford and with the consumer choices you often made blindly (to your great advantage, in some ways). Records were investments. You worked with them until they worked for you. Ironically, the on-demand, personal-choice-driven world has produced less robust and adaptable listeners, despite the surfeit, the everything-ever-on-tap proposition of Spotify and Apple Music. We lack the toughness now to overcome a rough start: the commitment, the faith, the understanding that a relationship with new music takes time to grow.
But I was already, at 11 or 12, an experienced student of rock who was very much commanding his own ship of taste. I had British Invasion, Creedence, the James Gang, the proto-metal of Deep Purple, some country/rock, Jethro Tull, Stevie Wonder and much else under my belt. My sharpening critical apparatus could already extrapolate much of the music that I did not yet know. I had been offered Pink Floyd and Roxy Music and had passed. From the other direction, the Grateful Dead and Little Feat were on my radar; the latter, especially, was making moves toward being my Next Big Thing. I was 12. I was not into radio and missed a lot of broadening experience because of that, but I honestly preferred deep over broad: protracted immersion in the same damn 40 minutes of sound, over and over, night after night – and that made me who I am.
The essence of Kansas’ music – you might call it prog, but it is better understood as “classical rock” – was something I was looking for and not getting anywhere else. Oh man, it was full of holes and chronically guilty of naïve and laughable overreach. I knew that even then. The lyrics aspired to a blustering, allusive, quasi-spiritual pomposity that they weren’t quite up to, and for every 30 seconds of lithe and elegant electric ensemble counterpoint (for there is much of that in the music of Kansas), I had to internalize four or five minutes of lumbering, joyless prog mechanics (for there is yet more of that in the music of Kansas). I could have been listening to early Genesis; or, better yet, Gentle Giant; or, better even still, actual classical music – but I wasn’t ready for any of that yet. Kansas gave me that “classical” kernel I yearned for in a form and at a level that I was able to understand. I never questioned whether I was listening to the right stuff.
And I don’t regret a minute of my time with them. I do sometimes regret the tendency of youth to identify with one band/brand at the expense of all others, to raise flags of allegiance and fight wars with rivals and to be hurt by the divergent or mocking tastes of others. But perhaps a tooth-and-nail, microfocused engagement with music would never happen without that fierce identification and the all-in-for-now spirit of serial monogamy. The problem with superfandom is that no music, except perhaps that of J. S. Bach, can provide all that you ask of it. And eventually you wake up to that fact, and your idols tumble and you replace them with your next tumbling idol until such time as you just don’t care anymore. Then, usually, you return to your first love, the Beatles.
The last band I asked everything of was XTC (look! prog logic in compact pop forms), and that took me into my early 30s. Since then, I have humbled myself and gone out of my way to like music that I used to hate. I swim in the river of music and never pause in one place for long. I have championed many bands and artists, but married none. And I can’t help but feel that something is missing from the experience.
When I first heard the Dixie Dregs, at the age of 16, they instantly became everything to me. There was no courtship, no feeling out, no initial reticence of unfamiliarity. Bang, there it was: what I had always been looking for. Kansas (with whom the Dregs have much in common) disappeared in a quite-sudden flash. My hunger for harmonic sophistication had, in the same period, led me down what was, for me, the red-herring path of fusion: modern jazz harmonic concepts washed down easy with funky grooves.
Advanced harmony, said Beethoven, is about the systematic expansion of the human ability to feel; and, except for the systematic part, that is my truth as well. Harmony is where my heart lives. And while jazz is the great 20th-century achievement of harmony, it is not what I love, for reasons I may try to write about someday; I love “classical” harmony – specifically a line in it that I trace, in my own late-arrival innocence, from Bach to Chopin to Brahms and Ravel.
When I heard the Dixie Dregs, I suddenly cared much less about fusion, too. Funny, because the Dixie Dregs have always been widely regarded as an elite fusion band. Certainly, they come from that milieu. They were trained in that skillset (and met) at what was, in the early ’70s, the Berklee of the South: the Jazz Studies program at the University of Miami, where Jaco and Metheny held court. And the first Dixie Dregs album – a curiously thin-sounding but musically rich record called Freefall – was in fact in the fusion style, though far more compositionally autocratic than anything called jazz is supposed to be.
But the Dregs aren’t fusion. I’d call them classical rock, but that term is made redundant by a much-more-fitting descriptor at the ready: The Dixie Dregs are, specifically and precisely, Baroque rock. The Baroque mode – harmonic movement realized through the crisscrossing, fluid alignment and interlocking of independent melody lines – is what Steve Morse just calls music.
Beginning with their second record, What If – a career highlight as rich and lush in sound as Freefall was thin and cranky – Dixie Dregs records start falling into a predictable pattern. Each record contains at least one hard-rock song (including their biggest, or arguably their only, hit, “Cruise Control” – a riff so mighty they recorded it twice); one country/bluegrass song; at least one fusion/funk track; several harder-to-categorize modern chamber/rock pieces, often with a Celtic-leaning melodicism; and always one classical guitar workout, for, in the tradition of prog Steves (Hackett and Howe), Steve Morse is a pretty damn capable classical guitarist – in fact, I would imagine the most capable of the three Steves.
The ruse of diversity, however, is pure style play laid over the top of the band’s mono-mode: It is Bach rock, Bach boogie, Bach country (the irresistible bluegrass beauty “I’ll Just Pick” might in fact be Morse’s most overtly Baroque composition), Bach funk (“Ice Cakes,” “Kat Food”), Bach prog (Morse’s long-form classical ballads were a highlight of each album for me – “Night Meets Light,” “Long Slow Distance,” “Day 444”) and, when Steve takes to the nylon-string, Bach Bach.
The Dixie Dregs dropped the “Dixie” for their last two records on Arista (coming from Capricorn) and went about as far as an instrumental rock band can hope to go. About the two ill-advised, hit-bid vocal tracks on their otherwise-excellent swan song – the bitterly titled Industry Standard – the less said, the better. The Dregs set the stage for the virtuoso hard-rock movement of Satriani and Vai, with which they are often erroneously grouped. The streaming servers have decided they are prog: close, but no cigar. Dregs fans are as likely to be found wearing Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever tee-shirts, but that’s not where it’s at either. They are – I will say it again – rock music’s premier, and maybe only, style-hopping electric Baroque chamber ensemble. Deal with it.
We hardcore fans had to blink in amazement when the news came out that the Dixie Dregs – “Dixie” restored – would be touring in their original lineup and playing in (or rather blowing the damn roof off) the Bearsville Theater. There is a wink attached to the “original lineup” part, because, as only we lifers know, the original Dixie Dregs lineup is not the classic Dixie Dregs lineup, though it is only off by one. The Dregs’ two definitive keyboard players –Mark Parrish and the classic-lineup stalwart T. Lavitz – are both dead. The return of Steve Davidowski, who played only on Freefall, is just a trip, man. But remember: Blazing virtuosity has always been the basic bar to entry in this band. Steve D. will be fine, and will hopefully take a turn on soprano sax – an axe that both he and Lavitz played with distinction on one Dregs song each.
Previous reunions have featured only Morse and Morgenstein from the original lineup, accompanied often by Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman and longtime Steve Morse Band bassist Dave LaRue. But now bassist and band co-founder Andy West and violinist/physician Allen Sloan are back. This is big news. Live, they plow with energy and precision through Steve Morse’s intricate-but-unfailingly-pretty compositions. The solos are many but short. Each player wrote his own: their one shot at embedding a micro-composition or cadenza of sorts into Morse’s hyperdetailed and exacting songs. But what made them a great live band, more than anything else, is the ecstatic playing of the band’s one true freelancer, drummer Rod Morgenstein. The spirit of this band lives in his joyful countenance.
Why, I am sitting here right now listening to “Day 444” from Unsung Heroes, Steve Morse’s staggeringly, dazzlingly beautiful Baroque hymn written upon the occasion and named for the day of the release of the Iranian hostages, and I am crying. Even today, as a fundamentally unschooled musician, I couldn’t count the meter of this complex song the same way twice, but I wouldn’t need to; I know every note and timbre and phrase by heart, every glance and crash of Rod Morgenstein’s garbage-can cymbal in the outro. Boy, did I put some time in on this music. Thank you, Radio Woodstock, for honoring the Bearsville’s rich legacy as a host of serious instrumental music, and thank you, Dixie Dregs, for making me what I am.
The Dixie Dregs perform at the Bearsville Theater on Saturday, March 17 at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $50 to $95. For tickets and additional information, visit www.bearsvilletheater.com. The Bearsville Theater is located at 291 Tinker Street in Woodstock.