They are five young men with conservatory educations who have chosen to play a strange blend of rock and jazz, cerebral music that strains the intellect as well as the heart. Set down in the middle of the Southern boogie basin, they are doggedly carving out for themselves a following of fans. The question is will their approach ever allow them to be "well off" or will they remain a "cult" band with lots of integrity and few bucks?
"Tell someone over 45 that rock music is the most important thing in your life, and he will
look at you in this strange way and say, 'Ah, yes, I remember buying comic books when I was
your age. . . .'"
The Scene (1970)
The Capri Ballroom in Atlanta seats only about 1,000, but Andy West has been worrying for a week about filling it up.
"I just hope somebody shows up," says the bearded, balding musician who fronts a band called The Dixie Dregs.
The Dixie Dregs may be the best band in the South, and some musicians and critics think they are among the best pop musicians in the country. But they are nervous because good musicianship does not necessarily draw a following.
At a practice session in their house in Decatur, an Atlanta suburb, they are letting the upcoming opening at the Capri make them edgy - that and the fact they are trying to work a new member into the group who plays an exceedingly cerebral, difficult brand of music sometimes called "jazz-rock," sometimes called "fusion." The session centers on guitarist Steve Morse, a virtuoso musician and prolific composer. He is ex-officio rehearsal master, although West is titular leader and business manager.
Morse straps on his guitar and waits for the others to settle in. "Uhhhh," he offers very softly to get attention, smiling as though practice is a practical joke being played on him. He looks from one to another. "Everybody okay, then? How about Leprechaun?"
He looks at the new member, keyboardist "Tee" Lavitz, who is crouching tensely over the electric piano, looking up at Morse as though waiting for a starting gun. He has been with the band only a month and is still unsure of himself. The song is a touch composition to play with its rapid changes and devilish countermelodies. For Lavitz' benefit, Morse has scribbled out on staff paper the basics of the piano part. Triplets are strewn in his hand like twittering sparrows along the rail fence of the staff.
The piece begins with a graceful, sweeping violin lead by Allen Sloan, who plays while leaning casually against a wall poster of Olivia Newton-John. Key signatures change frequently Tempo abruptly switches from one extreme to the other. All this sudden change of direction pits one instrument's voice against the other. Everybody's on his own and - given an instant of inattention - could be out in the left field. Midway, Sloan scrapes out a shrill, descending glissando, like a bomb's falling cry. The drums, played by Rod Morgenstein, cut across the layered rhythms of the piece with skittering energy. Lavitz plays like one possessed. But suddenly, the music stops. Lavitz, eager kid, looks up in surprise. All eyes are on him: quizzical grins, upraised eyebrows. "Ahhhh," Morse begins, searching for the gentlest words.
"I'm sorry," Lavitz says. "I was too soon, right? I came in a 16th too soon there at the first of the phrase?"
"Right," says Morse. "It's like da-da, duh-duh-duh . . . da. You wait for Rod to come in there, see; the drums hit here, then you come in. I know it sounds out of kilter but. . . ."
"I got it. I got it. Let me try it again."
It's nearing the end of a long rehearsal. It's getting late, and everyone is tired from a long road trip. There has been no time for rest. The pressure is on to regain the band's previous perfection. Lavitz is good - about as good as you can get, the members believe. But it takes time to settle in.
A bit wearily, they take it from the top. This time Lavitz gets closer. In two more tries, Morse pronounces him within another rehearsal or two of being ready.
"Okay," says Morse. "What do you want to do now? It's late. Want to call it a day?"
Lavitz straightens up. He's been in the house all day, practicing straight through on his own - until the start of rehearsal some three hours later.
"I'd sort of like to run through patchwork, you know, if you don't mind. Ahhhh, I think, you know, there's a place or two there where..." The rookie looks around him. The expressions that meet his gaze are not friendly.
"Well, Tee," says bassist West, "I think maybe we've had enough, you know, for today at least and...."
"Oh. Well. Sure, okay, uh, that's all right. I'll just stay here and practice on my own a while."
The others burst into uncontrollable laughter at this from Lavitz, who grins sheepishly and stares at the floor. They shepherd him out of the room and urge a night of sleep upon him.
Before braking up, they sit and listen to the cut of Leprechaun Promenade on their new album, Night of the Living Dregs. They talk of their past and their future, of the reasons they work well together:
"We're all sick."
"We all have the same father."
"Socioeconomic override factors."
"It's a return of the repressed, resulting in a fetish for augmented ninths." This from Sloan, who majored in psychology.
Only Morse is serious:
"The main thing is," says Morse, his fingers flying silently over the dead instrument in his hand, "that we all have this one goal, you see, and that is to prove this music can make it."
It is the "kind" of music that keeps the Dregs from becoming instant, runaway successes. Each of the five musicians is conservatory-trained. Sloan played for a year and a half with the Miami Symphony Orchestra. Morse knows and plays a large classical repertoire. Morgenstein, who some fellow musicians think could become "the next Buddy Rich," formed the first jazz ensemble at the University of Miami and was originally a keyboard student. West, who with Morse formed the prototype band of the Dregs many years ago, graduated from the Jazz Department of the Miami conservatory with a technique so agile and intricate that to see and hear it stuns most bass guitar players. Lavitz, the rookie, was voted one of the best conservatory musicians in the country last year.
They describe their own product as "electronic chamber music." It remains to be seen whether Southern audiences will embrace it on a scale now reserved for "get-down" Southern boogie and blues.
It is guitarist Steve Morse who writes most of the band's music and is its unifying force. Bassist Andy West also writes. The two were boyhood chums, and together - as Yankee transplants in a high school in Augusta, Ga. - formed a derivative rock band with the tongue-in-cheek name "Dixie Grit." Later, in Miami, when they re-formed, there were only the two of them left. They were the "dregs," they agreed. So they called themselves the Dixie Dregs. There was a deliberate paradox in the name - as there was in the music. It is a music of opposites bound together in irony.
Laid around a jazz-rock foundation of drums and bass, the statements of Morse's guitar work are eloquent, ranging from the baroque to wild and screaming jazz riffs. Sloan fiddles filigreed flights of sweet-toned, sonata-style melody one moment the switches to a raw-screeching, electronically hyped siren's cry the next. Fiddle hoe-downs, bluegrass figures, romantic gypsy phrases - all are likely to be found in the ensemble work. Electronic amplification and distortion allow Sloan's violin to sound like a theater organ or an entire violin section. Morgenstein's drum work seldom reverts to a simple rock shuffle. It's more likely to be stuttering and stampeding in crisp-sharp strokes through two time signatures at once.
The sound is tight, precise. The classical approach to composition produces quick and clean chord changes, statements of themes, divergences, then resolution. By contrast, Vocal rock is highly repetitive, the message being in the words. This music eschews vocals for the freedom of pure musicianship.
"Having vocals means you can have massive audience appeal and maybe get into the Top 40 music scene, which is great for business," Morse comments. "But this music is more challenging to write and play and just do - which is why we do it." But, can such music make its practitioners wealthy men? Even just comfortably well-off?
Three men who know the Dregs well think moderate wealth might someday be a possibility. But only a possibility.
"They'll never go platinum," says the group Sea Level's Chuck Leavell.
"The trouble with the Dregs is they're too good," says Twiggs Lyndon, formerly the Dregs' road manager, now personal manager of Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers.
"They are important, and we've made a commitment to them and their music. We have faith in it, and we'll be proven right on it," says Phil Walden, the wunderkind recording magnate from Macon who signed the Dregs to a recording and management contract.
Leavell is not disparaging the Dregs. It was he who brought them to the attention of Walden. In fact, Leavell is lavish in his praise of the groups musicianship. An accomplished self-taught, progressive rock pianist and vocalist who cannot read music, Leavell is especially sensitive to the solid musical background of the band.
"The Dregs are great musicians," says Leavell. "They've chosen the way they want to do go, and I admire them for sticking to it."
Walden says he signed the Dregs "because they are absolutely terrific." He adds, however, that the band is so different from the norm that they are a problem to market.
Walden got his start booking black acts in college in the still-segregated Fifties. Swimming against the current is nothing new to him. Walden knows what it is to invest years of promotional effort in a band.
"I've been in that position before," says Walden. "It took us five years, after all, with the Allman Brothers Band. You have to expose the music just constantly."
Walden's strategy with the Dixie Dregs is to make attending their concerts and buying their albums a stylish pursuit.
"What we have to do," says Walden, "is to attract certain tastemakers to the Dregs. A lot of people want to be trendy and hip, and you kinda fool them into listening, and then they find they actually like it."
Walden is a collector of objets d'art as well as a hard-nosed businessman. The two traits seemed each to have contributed to his decision to add the Dregs to his stable.
"We might not retire off the Dregs," says Walden, "but they can be financially successful. They won't be the Rolling Stones, they won't be the Beatles, but they can ring a cash register."
To the musicians in question, financial success now seems a long way off. Although they have recorded three albums and are touring regularly, have been praised in Rolling Stone, Downbeat and Guitar Player Magazines and were a hit at the prestigious Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival, they have yet to climb out of the "cult" band status which stands between them and riches.
"Nobody wants to follow a band like the Dregs on stage," says Lyndon. "Everybody in other bands says, 'Yeah, the Dregs are great. I hope they make it big. But if they go on before us, they'll make us look like slobs.' Their musicianship is so outstanding nobody can follow it and measure up. But more and more bands are finding that if they follow what the Dregs do with their own hit-oriented stuff that everybody hears on the radio, the fans love both things."
Lyndon, who spent hours on the road and at home in close contact with the Dregs, confirms their appearance as the most unassuming and non-egotistical of pop music groups is a reality. As proof, he points to credits he shares on a Dregs album as co-author of a piece called Gina Lola Breakdown. All he did, he recounts, was to inadvertently suggest the title then help co-author Steve Morse choose two phrases from several alternatives - among hundreds - in the resulting song.
"So I've selected one option of a dozen notes and written about eight or ten notes, and he gives me 10 per cent of the proceeds from the song. You know, in many rock groups, 10 notes would be 90 per cent of the whole song. But with the Dregs, they'll play those 10 notes and never return to them again."
Morse, the chief composer, is seldom without his guitar in his hands. With the instrument unplugged, he goes over and over scales, exercises, runs, chord progressions until they are second nature. The resulting expertise is evident in performance and writing.
"Who else could even hope to play the stuff he writes?" asks Lyndon.
The former Dregs road manager recalls one night with himself at the wheel of the band's van and only Morse awake, when he suggested to Morse that combining taps and reveille into one piece might be interesting.
"He crawled back into the back, and I could hear him just a little, fooling around," Lyndon recalls. "Then, in 30 minutes or so, he crawled back into the cab and says, 'Is this it?' and starts playing the two songs at the same time on his guitar, and they fit perfectly."
Lyndon's high regard extends to the others in the group as well, especially to violinist Sloan, whose talents include a mockingbird-like ability to duplicate virtually any line he hears played.
"One of the other guys - say the keyboard man or even Morse on guitar - would improvise a really good lick," Lyndon recalls. "And Allen was so good, he'd play it right back to them. It was good-natured, but it also puzzled them about how to handle it because it sort of stole their thunder."
But Lyndon had a suggestion.
"I told them most of the audience probably hadn't heard the first line anyway - with all the noise and all. So when Allen laid it on them, I told them to repeat it after him like he had played it first. They'd be the ones repeating it. Sure enough, they did that, and Allen got over the habit."
It is the final night of a week-long opening of Alex Cooley's Capri Ballroom, the premier Southern rock room.
"Dixie Dregs." Their name in lights on the Capri's marquee. The big man (Cooley) has sold out two shows every night for a week with such acts as Waylon Jennings, Santana, Peter Tosh, Mother's Finest - all with high audience identification.
"What if they gave a concert and nobody came?"
The Dregs enter the ballroom early for a soundcheck. They joke to hide their nervousness.
"It's not easy being a cult band; sometimes you get upstaged by the fertility rites."
They warm up in a tiny, elevated dressing room accessible only by narrow circular stairs. It is lined in aromatic cedar, like a clothes closet.
Out front, Dregs fans are entering and searching for the best seats. When those are filled, standing room is occupied. Someone brings word the house has sold out for the first show.
In the owner's box in the balcony, two hairy young men in jeans, boots and leather coats are shown to a table and plied with drinks. One of them is Robert Steinmetz, violinist with Kansas, a superstar rock group recording and living in Atlanta.
"I've been a fan of the Dregs for a long time," says Steinmetz. "I've been following them ever since they were playing the cafés and bars."
"You going to jam with them later?" someone asks.
"Not likely," says Steinmetz. "I couldn't keep up."
The virtuoso band blazes through its virtuoso repertoire, laying out in flawless style the whole breadth of its daring and talent. The audience eats it up and roars for more. Few Top 40 stars have ever received a more enthusiastic response. After several encores, the Dregs cap off the first show with a finely drawn parody of a disco production, complete with wooden, high-stepping choreography.
Backstage afterwards, in the cramped dressing room, Robert Steinmetz of Kansas introduces himself to fellow violinist Allen Sloan.
"Oh, man," says Sloan, "if I'd known you were out there, I wouldn't even have played."
"Hey, want to jam with us?" asks Andy West.
"No thanks," says Steinmetz. "I wouldn't have the guts to get on the same stage with you."
Outside, a line has formed for the second show. It stretches down the sidewalk and around the corner onto West Paces Ferry Road. Within 10 minutes, the second show is sold out.
The Dixie Dregs can indeed, as Walden says, "ring a cash register."