Steve Morse: Life With and Without The Dregs
He may be best known to many as aging proto-hard rock group Deep Purple's guitarist for the past decade (not to mention time spent in the mid-'80s with a reformed Kansas), but anyone who's followed his career since the mid-'70s knows there's far more to Steve Morse than an ability to admirably shred over the familiar changes to "Smoke on the Water." And we're not just talking about his ability to pilot a commercial aircraft (a career non sequitur that was reflective of Morse's need for more stability than seemed possible as a professional musician during some lean times).
Morse attended the same University (Miami) as jazz uber-guitarist Pat Metheny in the early '70s. The two would ultimately take radically divergent musical paths, and it's a shame that Morse has never achieved even a reasonably comparable percentage of Metheny's acclaim. Part of it has to do with musical choices. Metheny's pursuance of a more jazz-centric path means that he preached, from his earliest days, to a relatively smaller choir and didn't have to kowtow to the demands of the larger machine of the rock industry. Morse's decision to stay (more-or-less) within the rock world meant that, while there were enough fans out there to appreciate his skills, the industry itself simply didn't know what to do with him.
That said, Morse's stylistically diverse compositional skills and a virtuosic ability to make even the most technically staggering lines transcend mere testosterone-driven grandstanding and sound completely musical mean that, while he's won more than his share of polls with magazines like Guitar Player, he's more than just a guitarist for guitar heads.
Nowhere is this more visibleand audiblethan on two DVD releases that document his ground-breaking '70s group The Dixie Dregs and post-Dregs Steve Morse Band. The Dregs set captures the group, during one of its many creative peaks, at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival. The Steve Morse Band DVD comes largely from a Baden-Baden, Germany performance a dozen years later. Both demonstrate the perils of being a square peg in the round hole of a rock industry where trends more often than not dictate the kind of support one can get.
The Dixie Dregs
Live at Montreux 1978
Eagle Eye Media
If The Mahavishnu Orchestra had come to fusion from rock and country instead of a primarily jazz background it might have sounded something like The Dixie Dregs. Certainly, with a similar instrumental line-upguitar, violin, keyboards, bass and drumsthere are bound to be comparisons. But watching them perform a 45-minute set at Montreux, the biggest difference the viewer notices is that, as challenging as Morse's material was, The Dregs as a group was having some serious fun.
Not that the Mahavishnu Orchestra didn't enjoy itself, but there was always a pervasive air of seriousness, of consequence. The interaction and eye contact between the members of The Dregs were more reflective of a group of friends who enjoyed being together on-stage and off (something that couldn't be said for Mahavishnu Orchestra).
While there's ample solo space, it's always in the context of Morse's more detailed writing. Solo length is clearly defined (live versions of Morse's material rarely extended beyond studio versions) aligning The Dregs more closely to progressive rock than jazz, despite some linguistic links. If Gentle Giant gave Renaissance music a rock edge, then The Dregs played, as bassist Andy West describes in his intro to "Patchwork," "Avant-garde Country Music." Classical counterpoint blends with bluegrass, irregular meters and a country- rock beat to create a sound that remains unprecedented nearly thirty years later.
Morse, capable of lightning fast chicken-picking and more heavily distorted high velocity shredding, was the absolute antithesis of the '70s guitar hero. No Jimmy Page-like rock god posing or facial histrionicsno real attempt, in fact, to draw any attention to himself. The music may have been his but he clearly viewed The Dregs as a collective and collaborative affair, and that, in itself, is refreshing.
There are elements of funk and hard rock, occasional brief forays into swing alongside grace and, at times, considerable danger. The fiery "Wages of Weirdness" comes closest to Mahavishnu Orchestra territory; although Morse's clean Fender tone is a far cry from McLaughlin's fuzz-drenched screams. That Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman would ultimately become affiliated with later Dregs reunions is no surprise, though here Allen Sloan proves to be equally capable.
(L:R):Andy West, Steve Morse, Rod Morgenstein, Mark Parrish, Allen Sloan