Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Morse of Dregs

The Dixie Dregs Live at Montreux 1978
The Steve Morse Band Live in Baden-Baden
Eagle Eye Media

If you go to B.B. King’s club on Times Square on any given night, you’re actually not very likely to hear much blues. Probably, it will be a rock act, theoretically blues-inspired, but it’s often a stretch. The Dixie Dregs (wisely shortened to The Dregs in later years) were a legitimately blues & jazz inspired band, fusing disparate influences like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Led Zepellin, country, and bluegrass. Given their background, the Dregs were a more comfortable fit as a crossover jazz festival act, as documented in Live at Montreux 1978.

During their Montreux set bassist Andy West frequently emphasized their country roots to the audience, for good reason. It was on tunes where that influence was most pronounced that best represented the Dregs. On “The Bash” (or “The Wabash” or “Wabash Cannonball”) guitarist Steve Morse and violinist Allen Sloan whip up the audience with their rock & roll-bluegrass call-and-response. The hoedown-style “Kathreen” was another crowd pleasing high energy workout for guitar and violin.

The Dregs were unusual for being an instrumental rock band for most of the group’s life, proving the violins place in rock/fusion well before the Dave Matthews Band. Morse was considered the prime mover of the band, writing most of their repertoire, including catchy tunes like “Free Fall” and “Leprechaun Promenade,” and attaining a reputation as a guitarist’s guitarist. Among the bonus footage is a later clip from American Bandstand, which suggests the Dregs jumped the shark when forced to add a vocalist, sounding more like a generic hard rock band than the multi-hyphenated bluesy country-rock band of Montreux.

After a few detours, Morse would lead his own eponymous band, which was recorded Live in Baden-Baden Germany for the Ohne Filter show. Recorded after Morse’s stint with Kansas, the Baden-Baden session certainly has a stronger rock orientation than the Dregs at Montreux. However, his country roots still show on tunes like “General Lee.” Morse also still show something of a jazz sensibility in his interplay with bassist Dave LaRue, particularly on “Country Colors,” which sounds like a country tune by way of Mike Stern. He evens shows off his love for Bach on “Point Counterpoint,” a baroque-inspired duet with LaRue.

Between the Dregs and the Morse Band, we get a look at the road predominantly not taken in rock—instrumental music. Evidently, regardless of the virtuosity of the musicians, (frequently lame) vocals are considered crucial to commercial success. Whereas, in jazz vocalists take a backseat in prestige to instrumentalists, despite the fact that vocalists have proved more likely to “break out.” Ultimately, it is probably best if musicians play to their strengths, which in the case of Morse and The Dregs, means sans vocals, as is nicely exemplified in the Montreux and Baden-Baden Live DVDs.