Words & Photos by Roger Weisman
Friday night, the Dixie Dregs’ “Dawn of the Dregs” tour arrived in New York City as the band took to the stage of The Town Hall. The classic southern-progressive-fusion outfit featured a line-up not seen onstage in four decades. Primary composer and guitarist Steve Morse and drummer Rod Morgenstein were rejoined by bassist Andy West, violinist Allen Sloan, and keyboardist Steve Davidowski, all of whom featured on the band’s major label debut, Free Fall.
Reunion tours can be dicey affairs sometimes, particularly with bands like the Dregs, who were known for high energy, virtuosic performances. Oftentimes, musicians who take the stage again several decades down the line are, at best, more mature, and more melodically creative in their improvisations, but sometimes lack the fire of their old days.
This was not the case with the Dregs. In short, they killed it. They performed many of their live staples with aggressive panache, while debuting live versions of old songs that they previously deemed too musically demanding to execute live.
Though nothing in their catalog could ever be referred to as simple, they began the evening with some of their more accessible work. The band opened with a crisp and shimmering rendition of “Divided We Stand,” before breaking into the opening cuts from their debut, “Free Fall” and “Holiday,” solid instrumental rock with some nice rhythmic and melodic flourishes.
They kicked the energy up with “Assembly Line,” with West’s angular bass line riding on top of Morgenstein’s vicious, driving rhythm, while the mix of Morse’s guitar and Sloan’s violin in tandem created the effect of a screaming train (or factory) whistle.
As the first set wound on, the ensuing pieces would introduce different aspects of their sound, playing a breathtaking rendition of the delicate, atmospheric title cut from their second album, What If (“before new age was old age,” West joked), and later pulled out their first heavy bluegrass inspired rave-up of the evening, “Moe Down.”
They concluded the first set with “Odyssey,” a hard-edged progressive saga, replete with requisite complex time signatures, sudden shifts in dynamics, and dramatic soloing, with Davidowski providing some nice keyboard passages. One moment Morse’s guitar and Sloan’s violin would be dancing around one another, the next moment they would be joined together in harmonic lines, some flowing, some powerfully discordant.
The second set began with the classical influence coming to the forefront with Sloan taking the stage for an elegant violin solo before being joined by Morse for the acoustic duet, “Northern Lights.” West and Davidowski then returned to the stage to continue the “electric chamber music” portion of the show with “Go for Baroque.”
With all of the stylistic ingredients now introduced, Morgenstein got back up on the drum riser as West introduced the next piece, “Day 444,” one of the more rhythmically involved pieces of the show. Making reference to the composition’s odd and changing time signatures, West challenged the audience to try to wrap their heads around the perverted iteration of 4/4 time in which the piece ended. “There’s probably not too many musicians in the audience,” West quipped.
Of course, this resulted in a knowing round of laughter. Indeed, the Dixie Dregs are musician’s musicians and it would be a sure bet that 75% of the audience were members of their own bands with names like Phantasmagoric Duckling and Lysergic Meniscus. What non-musicians were in the audience were the most rabid fans of complicated, involved, and expertly played progressive and fusion music. One glance around the lobby at set-break revealed a crowd of music freaks in tee-shirts from previous Dixie Dregs tours, or of bands of a similar ilk such as Liquid Tension Experiment, King Crimson, and Brand X. All of them were intensely engaged in conversation, one-upping each other with bits of trivia about who played with who, what album came out in which year.
The truth is that the music of the Dregs requires, and inspires, a great deal of attention and focus. Their brand of fusion defies most expectations of that moniker (as it should, “fusion” originally described the intention to break free from the rules of genres and styles, not to become one). To describe their music as a dizzying blend of rock, jazz, bluegrass, and classical would still not paint a complete picture, and would fail to describe how at times they weave these styles elegantly together, and forcefully bash them together at others.
The remainder of the second set included old live favorites (“Refried Funky Chicken”), more atmospheric and jazz-tinged moments (“Leprechaun Promenade”), and their final electric hoedown of the night, “The Bash.”
Ending with their (more or less) straight forward rocker, “Cruise Control,” allowed each member the chance to rip out some final blistering solos before leaving Morganstein alone on his drum riser to remind the audience why he is considered one of the finest progressive/fusion players and educators (he has been a professor at Berklee school of music for decades). His aggressive, lightning fast, but stylish solo had all of the subtlety of slapping a sunburn, leaving the crowd agape. When the band came back to finish out the song, they made sure to match his energy and bash it out for as much as it was worth before leaving the stage.
They didn’t make the audience wait long before returning to encore with “Bloodsucking Leaches,” another hard rocker which showed once again, in case anyone still hadn’t figured it out, that in spite of their deftness in weaving together delicate, earthy, and heady music, they also knew how to kick some ass.
It was an evening of expertly executed, energetically performed, highly dynamic music. It celebrated the unique hybrid sound that they created years ago, but was still was pulsing and breathing onstage. It comes as no surprise that people who take music seriously, seriously dig this band.
Divided We Stand
Take It Off the Top
Country House Shuffle
Allen Sloan Violin Solo
Go for Baroque
Refried Funky Chicken
Wages of Weirdness
Cruise Control (w/drum solo)
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