As the former lead singer/guitarist for Grand Funk Railroad, Mark Farner’s voice and playing have been classic rock staples on stereo systems and radio for more than 50 years.
Tracks he wrote or covered include “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Rock and Roll Soul,” “Footstompin’ Music” and the epic “I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home.” They’re all fine examples of good old, no-frills, Midwest meat and potatoes rock and roll. The style is not a critical favorite, but it certainly moved a lot of vinyl and put a lot of rears in seats from the late ‘60s throughout the ‘70s. In an oft-quoted fact, Grand Funk Railroad sold out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles did.
All of those songs – along with other hits and deep cuts – are featured on the new concert DVD from Mark Farner’s American Band, From Chile with Love. Featuring 16 songs with five bonus solo audio tracks and two videos (including the mini-movie “Never and Always”), it was filmed at a 2019 show at the Teatro Caupolicán in Santiago, Chile during a South American run of shows.
“We decided to film there because when we had been to the venue previously, It was such a raucous and happy and rocking crowd. They’re part of our community, just a little south of the equator!” Farner laughs from his home in Lansing, Michigan. “All rockers have that free heart, no matter what country you live in.’”
South American audiences are especially known for their love of hard rock and heavy metal. But surprisingly, it’s the slower, more introspective GFR tune “Heartbreaker” that receives one of the most impassioned audiences responses, complete with a bellowing sing along and many, many hoisted phone cameras filming.
Farner recalls that a South American friend once told him that song was especially popular there, and that he himself learned English from the song. “They love that chorus refrain and vocal phrase. And when it happened the first time, I was full of goosebumps. What a rush! And they were singing the right words!”
And while many performers say some variation of how they “feed off the energy of the crowd,” Farner is an actual practitioner of that, something very plain in the film. “Some [performers] are more concerned how they come off, it’s a sensitive place. I just lay back in the groove and feel it,” Farner says. “It’s a guttural, instinctive emotion.”
Farner has long been an advocate of veteran’s causes and charities, and he and wife of 40+ years Lesia are donating $3 from every copy sold of From Chile with Love to Veterans Support Foundation, an organization that provides transitional housing services for veterans. And he’s lost count of how many Vietnam-era vets have told him how much the song “Closer to Home” (much like the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”) meant to them in the fields of war.
He says the cause is personal, noting that his father was a World War II veteran as a tank driver in the Seventh Armored Division of the U.S. Army. And that his mother was the first woman in the U.S. to weld on Sherman tanks at Fisher Body in the family’s hometown of Flint, Michigan.
“My dad returned home with four bronze stars in four major battles, but a lot of tank drivers didn’t even get to see a second battle,” he says. “I love my brothers and sisters of the armed forces, and I have a passion to help them when I can. [VSA] does a lot of incredible work. If you can’t believe in your armed forces, you’re in the wrong country! I wish Lesia and I could donate all of the proceeds from the DVD!”
One of the original rock power trios, Grand Funk Railroad (later shortened to Grand Funk) included Farner, Don Brewer (drums/vocals) and Mel Schacher (bass). They later added keyboardist Craig Frost in a series of successful records from 1969-1976. In pop culture, they’re one of a certain Homer Simpson’s stated favorite bands, as he reminisced about “the wild, shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner.”
The group splintered and reformed in various lineups. The original trio came back together in 1996 for a series of benefit shows and touring. But they split again two years later. Two years after that, Brewer and Schacher reformed GFR with Max Carl (vocals), Bruce Kulick (guitar), and Tim Cashion (keyboards), and have toured ever since.
The details behind the status are not agreed upon by the factions involved. Farner contends he was misled into signing a corporation agreement, which led to being voted out by his former bandmates. He has said that they also held a disdain for Farner’s very public Christianity and conservative politics. Brewer and Schacher (at least in the bio on GFR’s official website) counter that Farner left to return to his solo career and never returned.
In fact, the blood is still so bad that Farner had to recall the first pressing of the DVD and reprint the jackets of From Chile with Love to eliminate two songs that were the subject of legal threats: “Shinin’ On,” and what is likely the band’s best-known hit, the Brewer written/sung “We’re An American Band.”
But he hasn’t given up hope of a reunion, even after he was sued by GFR LTD. – of which he’s a 1/3 shareholder – for touring as “Mark Farner’s American Band” (GFR LTD. Has the trademark on “The American Band”). In 2019, a federal court ruled in Farner’s favor for the name, though bookers are still cautioned not to mention “Grand Funk Railroad” in materials promoting Farner’s solo band.
“The Bible says ‘stay out of the courts’ and I can tell you why brother, they are crooked as a pan of guts! I don’t like going to courts. But for Mark Farner’s American Band, I did,” Farner says.
“But that’s the way it’s been, and that’s too bad. I would love to give the Grand Funk fans the original band. I’ve been trying to do that for over 20 years. Every time we have a corporate meeting though, it’s shot down. I’m a shareholder, but not an officer. So I have no say so in actually what goes on in the corporation. Though I wrote 92% of the songs!”
But through whatever challenges life gives him: musical, legal, or personal (his and Lesia’s son Jesse passed in 2018 from complications of a horrific crippling accident years before), the 72-year-old Mark Farner finds comfort in a higher power. And that’s even more so after he says he had an out-of-body experience during the installation of a pacemaker, before he returned to what he calls his Earth-bound, mortal “bone suit.”
“I always pray before I go onstage and I’m serious about it. I sing my songs from my heart. And I still have my faith because Jesus is my Redeemer and his love is unconditional, though it’s not practiced much on this Earth,” he sums up. “Unless you’ve got a real good dog!”
For more information on Mark Farner and From Chile with Love, visit MarkFarner.com
This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com