The South Rises Again with The Dixie Dregs Reunion

The once and current Dixie Dregs: Steve Davidowski, Steve Morse, Andy West, Rod Morgenstein, and Allen Sloan. Photo courtesy of MSO PR.

This year’s tour by the Dixie Dregs – titled “Dawn of the Dregs” –  marks the first time that the classic mid-‘70s lineup which released the band’s first two albums The Great Spectacular (1976) and Free Fall (1977) have played together in more than four decades.

And a lot has changed in that time. Like the fact that, available right now on YouTube, is a good chunk of the concert the band played just two nights before, filmed by a fan in the front. And Morse is not thrilled.

“It’s a double-edged sword. It allows people who can’t or don’t want to go to the shows to see this music recorded in a tiny microphone and then start the troll comments. And that’s on the plus side!” he says. “On the negative side, it makes us not want to play new material that hasn’t been released yet, because then it’s out there. For most bands, I think that would also mean less experimentation or taking a chance in being spontaneous during a show.”

When it’s suggested that perhaps venues could ban cell phones or at least video recording during a show, Morse says it’s a great theory, just not workable in reality.

“You can’t take away cell phones. It’s people’s lifelines,” he says. “And these phones have a better recording capability than a lot of actual video cameras back in the day. People stream entire shows without giving a thought to intellectual property rights. It’s the majority versus minority, and a majority of people think it’s OK right now. But hey, every day is another adventure on this tour. Two days ago, my classical guitar was stolen. It was purchased without being bought. It relocated itself!”

The Dixie Dregs in 1975: Steve Davidowski, Steve Morse, Andy West, Rod Morgenstein, and Allen Sloan. Photo courtesy of MSO PR.

The Dixie Dregs have long occupied a special niche in music. For while their name, their affiliation with Capricorn Records, and the era of their heyday immediately brings to mind the category of “Southern Rock,” this mostly-instrumental group actually incorporates plenty of jazz, classical, and even prog rock into their music.

Initially formed in 1970 as Dixie Grit by Morse and bassist Andy West, they changed their name to Rock Ensemble II and then Dixie Dregs in 1974. By the next year, the lineup had included Morse, West, Steve Davidowski (keyboards), Rod Morgenstein (drums), and Allen Sloan (violin). It’s this group taking the stage on the current tour.

“This was the lineup at the time we were the least jaded, most hopeful, and had the most amount of new material to bring to the scene,” Morse says, though admitting that those times still weren’t easy for the group.

“It was uphill as far as being established in the record industry. We had no real vocals. We were too rock for jazz and too jazz for rock. And not country enough to be country or classical, but we incorporate all of those elements. People were confused about what our music was supposed to be based on a word,” he says. “It makes it more interesting to us, and I believe the audience likes the variety. We even later dropped the ‘Dixie’ from our name.”

Capricorn Records CD cover

The band had some lineup changes, putting out more records like fan favorites What If and Night of the Living Dregs, and broke up in the early ‘80s, but just a few years later would begin coming back in various variations for tours that have continued to this day – Morse and Morgenstein being the two constants. Morse would go on to have a solo career, and since 1994 has been the lead guitarist for Deep Purple.

For Dixie Dregs shows, understandably, the audience is a bit different, especially today. And Morse has no remorse about the reasons some come to see the band on the current 33-date tour.

“There’s something special about revisiting the music that was happening in your life when you’re going through a lot of changes. We played at or near a lot of colleges, and people want to relive that,” he offers. “And to that end, the tour is wildly successful. Except this time around, people aren’t spilling beer on you or the air is so thick with smoke and people aren’t whooping and hollering!”

For the tour’s setlist, Morse says it “coalesces around the classics.” But the band still wants to challenge itself and its audience, so they also pull out deeper, more complex material like “Day 444,” a particular favorite of the guitarist’s.

“I had originally tried out to be in a bluegrass band but didn’t get in. When you’re a guitar player, on stage you will be expected at some point to come out like a sharpshooter, take your gun out and hit six targets on the fly,” he says. “You’ve got to be fast and you’ve got to have something to say.”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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Dennis Tufano: From the Buckinghams to Bobby Darin

Dennis Tufano today: From the Buckinghams to Bobby Darin. Photo courtesy of Dennis Tufano

One would think that a band whose members were barely out of high school – but had the #1 song in the entire country – would be able to celebrate without restriction. That achievement happened for the Buckinghams in February 1967 when their two-minute-and-seven-second infectious slice of pop, “Kind of a Drag,” hit the peak position.

But there were also, um, a few issues. For exactly at the time that the Jim Holvay-penned tune was blowing up, the Chicago-based Buckinghams found themselves without a manager, without a recording contract, and had lost their keyboard player.

Lead singer Dennis Tufano certainly remembers the sweet and sour of the situation. “We were going through a lot of changes, and ‘Kind of a Drag’ was only released to fulfill a contract before our company released us. And it was never promoted” he recalls. “We were in a meeting and John, our drummer, walked in and he looked kind of down. He had a copy of Billboard that said the song was #1! We didn’t know what to do! But destiny seemed to carry us in the right direction, and things fell into place.”

Going back, the Buckinghams didn’t even start out with that name. Tufano, along with Jon Poulous (drums), Nick Fortuna (bass), Carl Giammarese (guitar), and Dennis Miccols (keyboards), were the Pulsations. But after being tapped as the house band for a local WGN-TV variety show, a producer suggested a more English-sounding name to jump on the All Things Beatle Bandwagon. A station security guard suggested “The Buckinghams,” and the band could always add that it was a tribute to the city’s famous Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park.

The classic Buckinghams lineup: Marty Grebb, Dennis Tufano, Nick Fortuna, John Poulos, and Carl Giammarese. CD cover by Columbia/Legacy

“We all wanted to be English back then! That’s what was happening!” Tufano laughs. “But we were still a little nervous about changing the name because of what people would [assume] about us and where we came from.”

Tufano notes that the “fear” seemed to be well-founded when the band was invited to perform several songs on the Smothers Brothers television show. “We were talking to Tommy and he said ‘Wait a second, you don’t have accents!’ and we said ‘Yes, we do – we have Chicago accents!”

But assuming they were from Across the Pond, the stage set that had been designed for them to perform on was festooned with…British flags. And as the band was not interviewed on the air, everyone watching at home understandably assumed they were part of the British Invasion.

Surprisingly, this sort of band naming was uncommon practice. Other contemporary chartmaking American groups with British-sounding monikers included the Beau Brummels (“Laugh, Laugh”) and the Count Five (“Psychotic Reaction”) of California, the Knickerbockers (“Lies”) of New Jersey, and Texas’ own Sir Douglas Quintet (“She’s About a Mover”) – whose lineup included a majority of Hispanic members!

The band first became popular in Chicago before breaking nationally. This was at a time when major cities and regions to had their own bands with songs that may or may not have become hits in other parts of the country. And local DJs played a huge part in that. “If we only had social media in that time!” Tufano laughs. “Back then your record had to really spread to an audience. Today, if a band hiccups, everybody knows about it!”

Marty Grebb replaced Miccols on keyboards after “Kind of a Drag” became a hit. The band would go on to spin a series of AM gold classics over the next few years including “Don’t You Care,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song)” and “Susan.”

“People tell me all the time about these songs and what it means to them to hear them again, and with me singing just like on the records. I’m just glad that my chops are still in shape!” Tufano says. “Fate and destiny worked out for me, and I’m having a ball!”

Photo courtesy of Dennis Tufano

The also briefly had fellow Chicagoan James William Guercio as a manager, who encouraged the group to add horns to their records. And while the sonic mix didn’t quite work out for the Buckinghams, Guercio finessed it as a producer with two other “horn rock” acts: Blood, Sweat and Tears and – most famously – Chicago.

By 1970, the group was through and members went their separate ways. Tufano and Giammarese formed a duo and recorded three albums before Tufano went to pursue an acting career. Poulos died of a drug-related heart attack in 1980. Tufano, Fortuna, and Giammarese played together at one-off gig in Chicago, and the remaining four man classic lineup reunited only once to play a benefit for Grebb with ex-Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine sitting in.

A new version of the Buckinghams with Fortuna and Giammarese (now handling lead vocals as Tufano declined to join the reformation) debuted in 1983. They have toured ever since.

Tufano has toured with a tribute show to Bobby Darin. In a bit of a pop culture side note, he and duet partner Mindy Sterling were the original voices performing the theme on early episodes of TV’s “Family Ties.” Before producers had the song rerecorded with bigger names Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams.

There was an opportunity in recent years for the trio to reunite and play again as the Buckinghams for a one-off PBS fundraising concert in the popular “My Generation” series. But according to Tufano, his former bandmates nixed the thought, and so Tufano did it solo. Ironically, he says that show – and it’s frequent re-airings – in turn reignited his solo career with the material.

The three men retain a fragile détente about the use of the name “Buckinghams” in their own separate promotions, trying to tamper down any “confusion” in the booking marketplace. “I’ve always maintained our friendship, and they had my blessing” Tufano offers. “They got nervous when I started singing again…but we’ve worked it all out.”

Dennis Tufano’s datebook is filled with appearances on package tours, solo dates, and more Bobby Darin shows. But he the biggest surprise for him is seeing the age of some members his audience. Age on the lower end of the scale.

“I see these young people coming to my shows and I’ll ask them ‘What are you doing here? Were you dragged?’ and they say no, they either grew up with the music from their parents or they find it on YouTube. You can Google and have access to anything! They say it’s fun and happy music, and they can understand what’s being said.”

But increasingly, Tufano says he’s hearing something else, perhaps inevitable due to the passage of time. “When they come up and tell me that this is music that their grandparents used to listen to, I have to stop it right there! But I’m 71, and it’s wonderful to be singing the songs I did when I was 19.”

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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Journey’s Jonathan Cain: The Great Believer

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Jonathan Cain with Journey recently. Photo courtesy of Zondervan.

You could practically hear the piercing screams of millions of HBO viewers across the land on the night of June 10, 2007 as they were all wondering the same thing: How could my cable tv cut out now??

That’s when we last saw New Jersey “sanitation engineer” Tony Soprano at Holsten’s Diner waiting for his family. He punches in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the booth jukebox. Wife Carmela arrives (perhaps the 1981 number had special meaning for the then-young couple?). Onion rings are ordered. Son A.J. takes a seat. Daughter Meadow can’t park the car outside. The song builds to a crescendo. Then that shifty guy in the Members Only jacket passes by. Is he a customer or an assassin? The front door bell rings. Tony looks up. And just as singer Steve Perry utters another emphatic “don’t stop,” the song and screen cut to black silence.

Also watching that night with anticipation was Jonathan Cain, longtime Journey keyboardist and co-writer of “Don’t Stop Believin’” More than a decade later, he says it was at that moment he realized that the song had gone from just being a hit or even huge hit for the band to another level of anthemic status.

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“That hit me profoundly. Then [Sopranos creator/producer] David Chase announced to his team that song was going to end the show, everything changed. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just a pop song. It had deeper layers to it, and you felt it. All those lyrics had meaning, it just transcended everything.”

Cain did have an inkling what was coming – he said that producers had asked his permission a year before the show aired to use the song. Then “Don’t Stop Believin’” appeared in both the stage show and film Rock of Ages and as a central theme of an episode on TV’s “Glee.” Today, that tune about the hopes and dreams of a small town girl and a city boy getting on that midnight train to anywhere is a metaphor for a whole lot more.

“I wrote that song about the ‘70s, but its appeal seems to span generations. And it’s unique – it represents all of what Journey is,” Cain sums up. “When we played that song at first, kids would push to the front of the stage and want to sing. And I thought it was strange. What was it about that particular song?”

Jonathan Cain’s recent memoir is not surprisingly titled Don’t Stop Believin’ – The Man, the Band, and the Song That Inspired Generations (304 pp., $26.99, Zondervan).

The book traces Cain’s story from child accordion player for his Chicago-area Italian neighbors (his given last name is Friga), to surviving a devastating fire at his parochial school that killed nearly 100 classmates and several nuns, through his early solo career and time with the John Waite-led group the Babys.

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Journey onstage back in the day: Steve Smith, Ross Valory, Steve Perry, Neal Schon, and Jonathan Cain. Photo courtesy of Zondervan.

A little over halfway through the book, Cain joins Journey as keyboardist and songwriter, writing “Faithfully” and co-penning hit like “Stone in Love,” “Only the Young,” “Who’s Cryin’ Now,” “Chain Reaction,” and one of rock’s greatest ballads, “Open Arms.”

Cain first performed the melody and chorus at his wedding, before finishing it off with Steve Perry years later. Though – like Dennis DeYoung, Peter Cetera, Kevin Cronin, and Peter Criss before him (in Styx, Chicago, REO Speedwagon, and KISS respectively), some of his more rockin’ bandmates were hesitant to record a mushy love song.

“Steve loved to sing ballads and wanted to do more of that. I first offered it to John Waite when I was in the Babys, but he didn’t want to sing it. But Perry loved it and we quickly finished the song in an afternoon and brought it to the band, and they said ‘what??’” Cain laughs. “But Perry had a conviction to go in a different direction. He’s a romantic at heart, and so am I, and the rest is history. It was one of the biggest singles we ever had.”

Journey also came of age at the height of MTV and their videos were in heavy rotation, even if their non-live in concert ones were sometimes head-scratching. Exhibit A has the five members frolicking around a shipping dock and miming their instruments to “Separate Ways.” Cain can still cringe at the memory of that one.

“We weren’t very fond of it, and we didn’t go about it the right way. Steve Perry used to say people have their own movie of what a song is in their minds, and it’s wrong for a director to stick something on a screen and say what it means,” he says.

“We did it on a very inexpensive budget and didn’t know what we were doing. Then Beavis and Butthead spent three years ripping it apart! Do I want to be remembered for playing air keyboard? No. It’s great if you were exposed to the band because of that video, but the song is bigger than that. I hope its gets a decent shot in a movie one day!”

Cain has much more pleasant memories of filming the full length 1981 concert Journey: Live in Houston – The Escape Tour at the Summit. It found the band at the cusp of the massive success that their next album Frontiers would bring, and was commissioned by and shown constantly on the then-nascent MTV channel.

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Neal Schon, Steve Perry, and Jonathan Cain with Journey back in the day. Photo courtesy of Zondervan.

“I can tell you the promoter was Robert Duncan. He and his wife were huge fans. I can remember not even thinking about the cameras – we were just clicking on all cylinders. I don’t think I was nervous at all,” Cain says. “But I thought it was as going to be cool. The world was going to see what Journey had become. The concert still holds up for me. We were good.’”

Next to music, the other main thread that runs through Cain’s book is his relationship with God and religion. Though he actually wanted to be a priest when he was younger, Cain maintained an on-and-off again relationship with the Lord for most of his life. That was until a few years ago when he became born again under the guidance of Pastor Paula White, the Florida-based Pentecostal evangelist who became his third wife.

White has also been a spiritual advisor to President Donald Trump. And when Cain and two members of the group visited the White House last year, it caused a public dust-up with Journey guitarist Neal Schon, who at one point floated the ideas of forming a new version of the band with just him. That conflict seems to have calmed down for now, but Cain is straightforward and makes no apologies for how he lives his life.

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Jonathan Cain and wife Paula White ministering to the faithful. Photo courtesy of Zondervan

“I am putting God first. A lot of us Christians think it’s a part time situation where you can come and go with God, and it doesn’t work that way,” he says. “I believe I had to get to being a broken guy and not knowing who I was when I looked into the mirror anymore and just surrender to Him. Some Christians just dabble in faith, but I believe the Lord takes his hand off you at one point and says ‘I’m done with you.’ It’s a two way street.

“There’s a love exchange that happens between God and Man,” Cain continues. “I believe that if you give God love and goodness, He fills you back up. I was missing that part, and I was able to find it again. I’m not trying to convert everyone to Jesus Christ at all, but it’s never too late to return to Him.”

The long held desires of Journey’s hardcore fan base came to fruition finally last year when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the heels of their winning the fan vote. Even casual listeners waited to see of Steve Perry – who hadn’t sung with the band since his dismissal over 20 years earlier – would take the mike for their mini-set. But he ultimately did not, and current singer Arnel Pineda (whose own entry into the group was the subject of its own documentary) raced out on stage.

“I didn’t rule it out the idea that Steve would decide to sing. We did a sound check rehearsal and I kept looking for him in the wings, but he declined to do it,” Cain says. “I can’t speak for him, but I thought what he said in his speech was so profound. I think he felt the fans missed him, and just having him onstage with us was great.”

As for Journey’s future, the group – which features four of its five classic member lineup (also including bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith) – just completed a massive summer with co-headliners Def Leppard with Tesla opening. He says that their set list for this type of show will pretty much stick to the hits, but he hopes the tour results in some fan cross-pollination.

A highlight for sure will be when Cain begins playing the electric piano opening to his most famous song that will cause the audience to roar. And like he does most nights, he’ll be thinking of that song’s actual inspiration: the three words that came in a letter he received from his father at a low point early in his career when he thought of giving up pursuing a musical career: Don’t stop believing.

“My father was my vision keeper. When he saw I could sing any song on the radio and play boogie woogie piano when I was four and was a ham, he got me lessons. And he supported me every step of the way,” Cain recalls. “And he did that with all of his sons. He was an astute man, and I try to do that with my children. I’m constantly cheerleading for them.”

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Alan White is Still a “Yes” Man

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Yes today: Billy Sherwood (bass/vocals), Jon Davison (vocals), Steve Howe (guitar), Alan White (drums), and Geoff Downes (keyboard). Photo by Glenn Gottlieb

One of the most egregious exclusions from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was finally remedied last year when Yes joined the list of inductees. Formed in 1968, they are one of the titans of Progressive Rock, mixing classical and symphonic elements, intricate and complex musicianship, and themes of space and fantasy in their lengthy catalog.

Fans were extra thrilled when all of the eight surviving inductees (except keyboardist Tony Kaye) performed several of their biggest hits together. Rush bassist Geddy Lee standing in for co-founder Chris Squire, who died in 2015. With a litany of lineup changes over the years of Yes Men (as well as a bevy of splinter groups with names like law firms, and leavings, and returnings) Squire was the only constant.

For drummer Alan White, that made it a bittersweet moment standing on that podium with his trophy. “Well, it’s been anticipated by a lot of people for a long time. And when we actually got nominated that was great, and when we got inducted, it made a lot of difference for us,” drummer Alan White says. “And everyone was thrilled. It’s just sad that Chris Squire never got to see it. He is sorely missed.”

White has been behind the kit for Yes since 1972 when original drummer Bill Bruford left to join King Crimson. His percussive work has appeared on plenty of classic Yes albums including Tales from Topographic Oceans, Relayer, Drama, and 90125 – the latter of which brought the band a surprise revival in the ‘80s and made them fixtures on MTV.

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Yes onstage recently. Photo by Glenn Gottlieb.

Yes, or at least the main version of it (more on that later) was on the road last summer headlining their own “Yestival” with support acts Todd Rundgren and Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy. White has a particularly affinity for fellow skin thumper Palmer, the last surviving member of Prog’s greatest trio (sorry, Rush fans) after the recent deaths of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake.

“I’ve known Carl since the early ‘70s. ELP and Yes always had a little bit of a competition between the bands, and then between us as drummers,” White says. “But we get on really well now, and have developed a relationship over the years.”

But during his band’s set, White was not the only drummer onstage, as guitarist Steve Howe’s son, Dylan, will be behind a second kit. It isn’t the first time that Yes has done this, and they pair are still “working out” the parts.

The three acts that make up Yestival, of course, are a Prog Rock lover’s dream. And all figure prominently in Dave Weigel’s recent history of the genre, The Show That Never Ends.

White doesn’t particularly care for the label “Prog Rock” – or any other labels for the band’s music – like classic rock of symphonic rock. But does realize its usefulness as a sort of musical shorthand.

Finally, one wrinkle that has come up recently is over the name of Yes itself. Prior to the band’s induction into the fall of fame, previous members Jon Anderson (vocals), Rick Wakeman (keyboards), and Trevor Rabin (guitarist), formed a splinter group called ARW, playing mostly Yes material. It’s been reported that Anderson had a sort of gentlemen’s agreement with co-founder Chris Squire that the latter would have sole use of the name.

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Roger Dean – whose work graces the covers of many Yes albums – is the go-to Prog Rock artist. This is the gatefold cover for “Tales of Topographic Oceans.” Atlantic Records cover

Since Squire’s passing, though – and shortly after the induction ceremony – ARW changed their name to law firm sounding “Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman.” Both bands will be on the road this fall, and it has divided Yes fans and members themselves.

This won’t confuse Yes’s more ardent followers, but it’s muddier for the ticket-buying fan who only knows that they like “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout,” “Long Distance Runaround,” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on the radio.

For his part, White is nonplussed and will leave the bickering to his bandmates, current and former, on both lineups. He’s just happy to play.

“I’ve been in the band for 45 years now, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m just carrying on being in Yes. We’re just carrying on doing what we did,” he sums up. “I have no opinion about that…or what [others] do.”

A version of this story originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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The Zombies’ “Time” Continues into Another Season

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The Zombies in 2017: Tom Toomey, Rod Argent, the late Jim Rodford, Colin Blunstone, and Steve Rodford. Photo by Andrew Eccles

The year 2018 is a good time to be a Zombie – of the musical singing and playing kind, not necessarily the walking dead variety. For decades, the group was beloved by a smallish-but-devoted audience, and rarely mentioned in the same breath as better known British Invasion contemporaries like the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Dave Clark Five, Yardbirds…even Herman’s Hermits.

After all, this was a band who scored a possibly career changing #3 hit on the U.S. charts in 1968…after they had already broken up (that would be FM radio staple “Time of the Season” off the album Odessey and Oracle). The Zombies had previously charted with “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.”

Their original incarnation only spanned a handful of years and put out fewer LPs. But their unique brand of smart, snappy pop-rock—anchored by Colin Blunstone’s breathy vocals and Rod Argent’s keyboard flourishes and backing vocals—made them cult favorites. But now the word is finally out.

In 2016, the band was included for the first time on the ballot for induction (but did not make the final cut) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their most recent album, 2015’s Still Got That Hunger, garnered mostly positive reviews. There’s even a coffee table book out on the band’s history. And their summer in 2018 is filled with appearances at festivals and headlining shows around the world.

“It’s been exciting to see how the audiences have grown over the past number of years. Just by word of mouth and good playing by professionals. Our profile has definitely grown,” Blunstone – in the most elegant-sounding, PBS-worthy English accent I have ever heard in my life – told me last year.

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The cover of “Still Got that Hunger.” Art by Terry Quirk, a friend of the band who also did the cover for “Odessey and Oracale,” famously misspelling the first word in an error that has never been corrected and part of the band’s lore.

Most importantly, the Zombies last year wound up a tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, with the album played in its entirety. Original members Chris White (bass) and Hugh Grundy (drums) joined the then-current lineup of Blunstone, Argent, Jim Rodford (bass), Steve Rodford (drums), and Tom Toomey (guitar). Original guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004. Jim Rodford – an actual early member of the group who left early on, but was a longtime member of the Kinks – died last year. Their new bassist is Soren Koch.

“Those shows were wonderful and emotional, and such vivid memories of the ‘60s came rushing back with Chris and Hugh onstage,” Blunstone adds. “It seems like almost yesterday we were playing together, even though it was a lifetime ago. It plays tricks on your memory.”

Still, it wasn’t an easy or predetermined road to today’s success. When Blunstone and Argent resurrected the Zombies name for concerts and records beginning in 2004, they had to grow an audience. I recall seeing them in Houston on that first tour in a room of about 40 (albeit diehard) local Houston fans. On their last stop, they played to hundreds.

In recording Still Got That Hunger, the Zombies looked back to look forward. “We decided quite purposefully to record the new album like we did with Odessey, which was to rehearse extensively before we set foot in the studio. Back then, it was to save money since we had a limited budget and were recording in Abbey Road Studios, which was expensive!” Blunstone laughs. “So we recorded very quickly, and that’s what we did, playing in separate sound booths, but live together.”

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The original Zombies: Chris White, Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson, Colin Blunstone, and Hugh Grundy

The singer adds that his vocals on the finished album were originally just put down as a guide, but upon hearing them, the band agreed to use them as is. He also gives producer Chris Potter – who has worked with the Verve and the Rolling Stones – a lot of credit for the final work. Writing is already in process for a follow up, possibly also with Potter.

As for live shows, Blunstone is proud that at age 72, he still has his full vocal range, and the band plays all their material in their original keys. He credits a late voice coach – Ian Adam, who also tutored Argent – with creating a series of vocal exercises that he uses to warm up before every show. Although the material went from being on a cassette to a CD to its current home on Blunstone’s smart phone.

Then there’s the matter of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Blunstone hopes that the band will be inducted while four of the five original members “are still around,” adding they’re all in pretty good health.

“But you have to be philosophical about these things. I like to think of us – especially the present incarnation – as jobbing musicians. Our job is to go out and play live. The Hall of Fame would be wonderful, but we enjoy what we’re doing anyway. And we’re incredibly privileged to be doing it at this time in our lives. The Hall of Fame would be the icing on the cake.”

Finally, the Zombies have taken to the high seas on more than one occasion, and will continue to do so on jaunts with titles like The Flower Power Cruise and the Moody Blues Cruise. 2018 will see them play the On the Blue Cruise alongside Moody Blues vocalist Justin Hayward, former Genesis guitar player Steve Hackett, Wishbone Ash, Al Stewart, Dave Mason, and groups with various members and former members of Chicago, ELO, the Alan Parsons Project, and Procol Harum.

While being trapped on a boat in the middle of the ocean with rabid fans might seem like (and likely is) a nightmare for some performers, Blunstone takes it in stride – provided that he’s not hungry as soon as he gets up.

“It’s interesting. These ships are huge. They are like a town or a small city that just happens to be on the sea. But you’re actually travelling with your audience,” he says. “I like to get out and speak to people, but you really have to plan your time. It may well take you 45 minutes or an hour just to get to breakfast in the morning because people want to talk to you! But they’re incredibly respectful and enthusiastic and polite.”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

 

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The Sonics’ Boom

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The Sonics today: Freddie Dennis, Evan Foster, Dusty Watson, Rob Lind, and Jake Lords.Photo by Bobbi Barbarich.

The Modelo beer commercial ran for a couple of years beginning in 2013. A guy and his two buddies walk into a new bar, only to be met with glaring faces from the regulars.

Sure, bespectacled, beanie-capped tough guy Tommy “triples” his street cred. And ordering Modelo Especials earns “seven slow nods” from the still-frosty crowd. But it’s ace-in-the hole Dylan with his “encyclopedic knowledge of Garage Rock” who finally gains the interlopers acceptance when he plays a tune on the jukebox to the smiling approval of all gathered.

That tune – with the reverby guitar and screeching vocals – is “Have Love Will Travel” by the Sonics.

“That’s one of the songs I refer to onstage deprecatingly as ‘our hits of the ‘60s!’” laughs Sonics sax/harp player Rob Lind – knowing full well that the Top 40 charts were never bothered by the band. Still, the Sonics’ name and catalog is revered today. Even if the group themselves were among the last to know.

“This is going to make us sound like dummies, but we really didn’t know that until about 2005 when we started getting asked to start playing again,” Lind says, noting that most of the original group rehearsed on and off for nearly two years.

“And we thought we would only do it if we really could pull it off. We didn’t want to go onstage and look like pathetic old fools.”

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Big Beat’s “Psycho-Sonic” CD is the best single-disc anthology. The classic lineup: Rob Lind, Andy Parypa, Larry Parypa, Jerry Roslie, and Bob Bennett.Cover of Big Beat CD/Photo by Jini Dellaccio.

Two New York gigs went so well in 2007 that not even a week later, the group sold out two more in London. “We also met [Garage Rock revivalists] the Hives. And they told us the kids had discovered us. No record shop in London had anything by the Sonics left!”

The Sonics boomed out of Tacoma, Washington in 1960 as a teenage band under the leadership of guitarist Larry Parypa. By 1964, the classic lineup was in place with Parypa, his brother Andy (bass), Rob Lind (sax/harmonica), Bob Bennett (drums), and Jerry Roslie (lead vocals/keyboards).

It was Roslie’s throat-shredding, pitch-screaming, utterly unhinged vocals that became the Sonics’ sonic calling card. In the liner notes to the compilation Psycho-Sonic, the singer would remember that he sang so hard “chunks of meat” would sometimes come out of his throat after gigs.

The band was scouted by Buck Ormsby, bassist for fellow northwest Garage Rockers the Wailers (“Tall Cool One,” “Dirty Robber”) and signed to their Etiquette Label. In fact, the Pacific Northwest was very fertile ground for the genre, producing not only the Wailers and Sonics but the Kingsmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Ventures.

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Rob Lind and Jake Lords recreate the frantic and frenetic sounds of the Sonics onstage.Photo by Bobbi Barbarich.

“There were a lot of good bands up there, and a lot of different genres. A lot of musicianship,” Lind recalls. “But it seemed like we were trapped there. Then when it blew up nationally in the ‘90s with [grunge] we were proud of those guys. Eddie Vedder and I talked about that.”

A series of singles and two albums – 1965’s Here Are the Sonics and 1966’s Boom quickly came out. And while commercial success eluded them, a string of forceful originals, often with dark lyrics (“The Witch,” “Strychnine,” “Psycho,” “”Shot Down,” “He’s Waitin’”) and frenetic Little Richard and soul covers (including Richard Berry’s “Have Love Will Travel”) established a unique identity.

The Sonics left Etiquette for Jerden Records, releasing one more album – the oddly titled Introducing the Sonics – before the band fell apart. Not out of disagreement, though: members just drifted into other jobs and professions far outside music. The classic lineup did share the stage one more time at a one-off reunion gig in 1972.

Lind entered the U.S. Navy – which found him spending most of 1973 as a pilot flying missions in South Vietnam and Laos during the war. And then he spent more than 20 years as a commercial pilot for US Airways and Continental. Roslie would briefly revive the band in 1980, releasing the record Sinderella.

But a funny thing happened over the ensuing years: The Sonics became a cult band, their pre-CD compilation albums fetched high prices, there was talk of them as the “original punk rock band,” and their music began popping up in TV and movies. The Cramps and The Flaming Lips covered “Strychnine.” And Kurt Cobain and Jack White sang their praises.

In 2007, the band reformed with Larry Parypa, Roslie, and Lind (Andy Parypa and Bennett choosing not to go back into music). An EP with live and new songs, 8 came out. The lineup was settled with Freddie Dennis on bass and Dusty Watson (who spent 30+ years with Dick Dale) on drums.

This lineup released the critically acclaimed comeback This is the Sonics in 2015. The current set list includes about half ‘60s and half from this album, tracks like “Bad Betty” and covers of “Sugaree” and “Look at Little Sister.”

However, beginning in 2016, Roslie and Parypa chose to leave life on the road behind for either health or travel reasons, leaving Lind as the only original member onstage. Dennis has taken over lead vocals, and Evan Foster of the Boss Martians (guitar) and Jake Lords of the Lords of Altamont (keyboards) have been added.

“We’re thinking about a new album,” Lind says. “I’m doing some writing and Jerry’s doing some writing and then he and Larry could come in and be on the record.”

Part of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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Eric Bloom: Cult Leader

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Still Burnin’ For You: Eric Bloom, Richie Castellano, Jules Radino and Buck Dharma. Photo courtesy of Blue Oyster Cult

Though he was born to be wild, he (Or she? Theories abound.) is still an unlikely protagonist for a rock and roll song. This now 64-year-old amphibious reptile who stands around 300 feet tall and has breath you don’t want to be on the receiving end of. But at least he (or she?) keeps urban architects of the Far East both dismayed and continually employed.

Nonetheless, 1977’s “Godzilla” is one of the biggest hits for Blue Öyster Cult (don’t forget the umlaut) and a classic rock warhorse and written by lead guitarist/singer Buck Dharma. But according to the group’s Eric Bloom, don’t think there are banking it for every airplay or multi-media usage of the tune.

“Buck wrote the song, but when he did, he wasn’t thinking about the movies or royalties or ownership. We just recorded it,” the lead singer/rhythm guitarist says. “Out of the blue jumps Toho Films who own the rights [to Godzilla] that says we can’t do that unless we paid them. So we had to give away a big chunk of the music publishing in perpetuity to the film company. We can’t even use a likeness of The Guy himself on T-shirt or record cover, or they will come after us.”

“The Guy” (Or girl!) will undoubtedly make an appearance – at least in song – at the upcoming BÖC show along with other big hits “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” “Burnin’ For You,” and perhaps other tales of sci-fi and S&M like “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll,” “The Red and the Black,” “7 Screaming Diz-Busters,” “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” “Flaming Telepath,” “Stairway to the Stars,” and “Transmaniacon MC.”

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The classic lineup: (top row) Joe Bouchard, Albert Bouchard, Allen Lanier. (bottom) Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma.

The band’ story stretches back 50 years. After members began to coalesce in the late ‘60s around the campus of Long Island’s Stony Brook University – playing in early groups with names like Soft White Underbelly and the Stalk-Forrest Group, Blue Öyster Cult began life in 1971.

And the classic lineup of Bloom, Dharma, Allen Lanier (keyboards/guitar), Albert Bouchard (drums), and brother Joe Bouchard (bass) put out a string of records in the decade that became…well…cult favorites for their mixture of hard rock music and lyrics with otherworldly topics and subversive humor in discs like Secret Treaties, Agents of Fortune, Spectres, and Fire of Unknown Origin.

Take “Career of Evil,” written by Albert Bouchard and his then-girlfriend, singer/songwriter Patti Smith. Among the litany of crimes and socially unacceptable practices the devious narrator says he wants to perpetuate comes the immortal line “I want to do it to your daughter on a dirt road.” Though, as Bloom mentions, with up to three generations of fans coming to current shows, sentiments like that can get a little sticky.

“Patti was going to do that song with us for our 40th anniversary show and we even rehearsed it – there’s footage on YouTube,” Bloom says. “But then she had a change of heart and said she didn’t want to sing it – because she had a daughter!”

In their ‘70s heyday, Blue Öyster Cult was also known for their pioneering the then cutting-edge laser shows during their concerts. The technology was so new at the time that for awhile, the U.S. government sent a representative from OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) on tour to check things out.

“That was during the Carter administration, and we were these longhaired hippie with lasers! So the government sent these scientists out tour with us with measuring equipment to be sure we weren’t blinding the youth of America,” Bloom laughs.

“And they ended up writing a 100-page report. We had to have a licensed laserist on the tour. He eventually had to go to Washington [to testify], and they still found fault with what we were doing! We were the band that changed all the rules about using [lasers] during a show.”

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BOC today: Richie Castellano, Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma, Jules Radino, and Kasim Sulton. Photo courtesy of Blue Oyster Cult.

The group’s current lineup includes original members Bloom and Dharma (whose real name is Donald Roeser, but was the only band member who decided to keep the more colorful moniker early manager Sandy Pearlman gave each member). Along with keyboardist/guitarist Richie Castellano and drummer Jules Radino. For the current tour, Danny Miranda is handling bass duties while Kasim Sulton is on the road with Todd Rundgren.

The band’s last studio effort came out all the way back in 2001, but Bloom says the band is currently in negotiations with “several record companies” whose end result could be a new BÖC record for 2018. And the band will start writing and/or polishing new material that could end up in future shows.

Bloom is responsible for writing the band’s set list each gig, something he does about a half an hour before they hit the stage. And he tries to tailor each show to their audience. Headlining or theater shows that bring out more hardcore fans get a sprinkling of deeper cuts, while when they play festivals or serve as an opening act, the group sticks their most familiar material.

He says it’s sometimes a struggle to try and please everyone, something that seemingly most classic rock era bands face. “I go to this pizza place, and the girl that runs it I’ve known for 40 years,” Bloom says. “And she says ‘I went to see this band and they played new stuff. I don’t want to hear that!’ So you get it from both sides!’”

In bringing up the band’s exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – an institution that seems to have bias against, hard, heavy, and/or  “meat and potatoes” rock (just ask Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad or Randy Bachman of the Guess Who/Bachman-Turner Overdrive) – Bloom says it’s not something that weighs heavily upon him.

“I really don’t think about that type of things. I know that there are petitions out there from fans on Facebook,” he offers. “We are hopeful, but it’s nothing I lose sleep over.”

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that Blue Öyster Cult has always had one of the greatest introductions in the annals of live rock and roll, as an offstage announcer would exhort the audience – already in a fever pitch – to get “On your FEET or on your KNEES for BLUE ÖYSTER CULT!” The group even used this proclamation for the title of their 1975 live record.

Sadly, though, Bloom says they haven’t utilized that intro in years. “Nah, we don’t use it anymore,” he laughs. “It’s just some music and then we go right into the show!”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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