Rod Morgenstein - drums; Steve Morse - guitar; Allen Sloan - electric violin; T. Lavitz - keyboard; Andy West - bass
Dixie Dregs drummer Rod Morgenstein has his own particular memory of the night the group taped its King Biscuit Flower Hour broadcast. "I broke out in one of the worst skin rashes, on my entire body, that had me itching worse than any case of poison ivy I've ever had," he says with a laugh. "I was going out of my mind. I remember after the show, going to somebody's house - a total stranger - and just asking them if I could soak in a tub of freezing water just to try to numb this discomfort." And the show? "Oh, yeah. It was good."
"Great" is a more suitable word for The Dixie Dregs. They're one of those groups - they don't sell millions of albums or have regular hits on the Top 40, but really do make great music. They're a musician's band - virtuoso players whose individual skills are enhanced by an ensemble sensibility that values melody and composition as much as it loves its licks. "The band has this nice image of being a groundbreaking instrumental fusion kind of band, carrying on from where the Mahavishnu Orchestra began - making instrumental music a little more palatable to the average, non-musician listener," Morgenstein explains.
It's a delicate kind of balance, but the proof is in the performance - both on the Dregs' 14 releases and on this recording, a performance staged on June 17, 1979 at Sigma Sound recording studio in Philadelphia. The date finds the Dregs at a particularly heady point in their history, just three years into their recording career and with a substantial buzz about their then-new album, Night of the Living Dregs. The rock world was excited; seldom had this much musical talent - a group of A-level students from the University of Miami's famed School of Music - been squeezed into one band.
Morgenstein remembers feeling a bit of trepidation at the idea of performing live in a recording studio. "It's a little sterile, even though they did have an audience in there, a handful of people," he says. "It's a little more difficult to kind of space out and have fun 'cause you're so conscious it's going on tape. There's a tendency to be reserved."
The Dregs managed to overcome that tendency on this night, however; their 12-song performance is an electrifying experience. Steve Morse's guitar plays ring-around-the-rosie with Allen Sloan's electric violin, while keyboardist T. Lavitz - who apparently was worried about being loud enough in the mix - contributes a vast array of sounds, from barrelhouse piano to washes of synthesizer. Meanwhile, Morgenstein and bassist Andy West keep the bottom anchored, providing solid foundations for the songs, and punchy, dead-on accents when the time is right.
What strikes the listener the most about the show is the breadth of styles the Dregs take on - sometimes within one song. "Ice Cakes" starts with molten-hard guitar licks from Morse, evolves into a moody, ambient groove, then crosses into serious funk territory punctuated by West's bass. The rest of the performance runs the gamut from the Celtic jiggery of "Moe Down" to the country shuffle of "The Bash," the gorgeous, layered tones of "Night Meets Light," the rock drive of "Punk Sandwich" and "Take It Off the Top" and the widescreen jazz fusion attack of "Cruise Control."
The Dregs worked the rock circuit and were often - mistakenly - lumped in with other Southern rockers. Press and peer regard was huge; sales were not. Then again, instrumental bands have never had an easy time making inroads with a mass audience, even groups that tour at the 200-plus gigs a year pace the Dregs maintained. "We always thought that a couple of songs, like 'Cruise Control' or 'Take it Off the Top,' could have been more successful. Every three or four or five years, it seems like an instrumental hit comes along. But when a label sees it's an instrumental band, immediately they change their posture. You're not going to be a top priority at the label."
A reunion occurred in 1992, with Morse, Lavitz, Morgenstein and Dave LaRue (now with the Steve Morse Band) getting back together. Since the old Dixie days, Morse, of course, has had the highest profile of the band members, forging a successful solo career, with stints in Kansas and Deep Purple. Morgenstein played in the rock group Winger and did a duo project with keyboardist Jordan Rudess. Lavitz played with Widespread Panic and worked with Jefferson Starship. And Sloan has taken the greatest career left turn, working as a full-time anesthesiologist.
Thinking back to the King Biscuit session, Morgenstein notes that "as the years wore on, we all got more accomplished on our instruments." And you would only expect that from musicians as ambitious as the members of the Dregs. Yet, as the final licks of "Take it Off the Top" bring the show to a crashing end, you'll likely find yourself thinking, "How can it get much better than that?!"