Steve Morse knows how to revive a renowned rock entity. The virtuoso guitarist took a turn in the group Kansas in the late ’80s, then joined British hard-rock icons Deep Purple in 1994. He’s held that position since, performing at the band’s 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and on its still-continuing Last Goodbye Tour.
However, Morse’s personal claim-to-fame remains the Dixie Dregs, the eclectic instrumental outfit he co-founded in the early ’70s. Fusing rock, jazz, bluegrass and classical elements, the Grammy-nominated group sealed a cult following after its 1983 breakup, with subsequent reunions of revolving alumni in addition to Morse, drummer Rod Morgenstein and keyboardist T Lavitz.
Lavitz’s death in 2010 cast doubt on any future outings. But when the Dixie Dregs hit New Hampshire’s Tupelo Music Hall on March 18 and the Wilbur Theatre the next night, it’ll be part of the first tour in 40 years to feature the group’s original lineup, rounded out by keyboardist Steve Davidowski, violinist Allen Sloan and co-founding
bassist Andy West.
“It is like riding a bicycle,” Morse, 63, says. “Everybody’s personality is the same. Everybody plays with the same tendencies.”
In the intervening years, West kept his chops up, recording with top musicians Mike Keneally and Henry Kaiser while working in the software industry. Sloan remains a practicing anesthesiologist, having made only the occasional Dregs reunion. Morse briefly flew as a commercial co-pilot in addition to duties with the Steve Morse Band and other gigs, while Morgenstein joined the hard-rock band Winger and became a percussion professor at Berklee. They found Davidowski had also remained active in music, playing with bands in North Carolina.
“Before we even talked about doing this, we said, ‘Let’s just get together and play some tunes and have a private reunion’—and we did that and it went very well,” Morse says. “We’ve been down the interstates a lot, but there’s nothing like the recharge of energy you get from playing with people and music you like and especially audiences that like the music. That changes it.”
Indeed, diehard fans fueled the revival, voting for songs to include on this Dawn of the Dregs tour in a poll on the band’s website. Historically, Dregs shows have sported fan favorites that span the band’s broad range, from the cowbell-pushed riffing of “Take It Off the Top” to the accelerating bluegrass-twangy trade-offs of “The Bash” and the impressionistic string flights of “Odyssey,” which evoked the influence of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. But this tour’s also expected to include tracks from 1977’s Free Fall (the only album with Davidowski), plus two tunes never previously played live: the melancholy “Day 444” and classically sculpted “Go for Baroque.”
Morse studied classical composition at the University of Miami at the same time that Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius and Bruce Hornsby were in that music program. Morse played classical guitar originals in the first half of his senior recital, then showcased the budding Dregs. “It was just lax enough in terms of expression,” he says of the school. “I happened to not fit in any place I went. I was too rock for the jazz guys and I was too much of a beginner for the classical guys.”
He earned some credibility with the jazz crowd when the Dregs began to cover Mahavishnu after that fusion juggernaut performed on campus, with Morse right up front. “People acknowledge the greatness of the classical composers but don’t listen much, and part of that is [classical music] doesn’t appeal to the ears as much as the insistent rhythm of rock,” Morse says of his genre-mixing philosophy. “Keep it energetic yet have variety. Keep the songs fairly short and have lots of changes. … Challenge the audience a little bit, but keep bringing them back.”
It makes for a balance of technical mastery and crowd-pleasing friskiness. “There’s no taking it too seriously,” Morse says—and that attitude extends to the name West hatched when their old high school band Dixie Grit broke up. “We were the only ones left, so Andy said, ‘I guess we’re Dixie Dregs now.’ I laughed, and that was it.” ◆
The Dixie Dregs play the Wilbur Theatre on March 19.
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