Steve Morse has been shredding guitars for nearly half a century now, having made his mark as the go-to gunslinger for such rock stalwarts as Deep Purple and Kansas. The fluid-fingered Midwesterner sharpened his skills at the University of Miami School of Music in Florida, where he met the key collaborators who’d help shape his solo career.
Equally proficient on both electric and acoustic guitars, Morse gained a “guitar god” reputation in the mid-1970s, his lightning licks on the Capricorn Records releases The Great Spectacular (1976) and Free Fall (1977) heralding (and easily predating) the dazzling debuts by Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, and other future ‘80s hair-metal heroes.
Browse Morse’s solo catalog (1989’s High Tension Wires and 1996’s Stress Fest are good entry points) and you’ll discover there’s no song (or style) the guy can’t master: Steve’s covered technically demanding pieces by such diverse artists as Steve Howe (Yes), Alex Lifeson (Rush), Jeff Beck, and Johann Sebastian Bach—and he’s shared studios and stages with Peter Frampton, Eric Johnson, Rik Emmett (Triumph), and Joe Satriani.
This spring Morse will return to his roots by hitting the road with the band that put his name on the map: The Dixie Dregs.
The influential, Augusta-based jazz / rock / fusion band will bring its Dawn of the Dregs reunion tour to over 25 U.S. cities February-April 2018 and uncap fan favorites from such classic LPs as 1977’s Free Fall, 1979’s Night of the Living Dregs, and 1981’s Unsung Heroes for the first time in decades.
The predominantly-instrumental ensemble features musical mainstays Morse and drummer Rod Morgenstein (Winger). But Dregs cofounder Andy West has returned on bass, along with original violinist Allen Sloan and keyboardist Steve Davidowski. Other notable alumni include Dave LaRue (bass), Jerry Goodman (violin), Mark O’Connor (keys), and keyboardists Mark Parrish and T. Lavitz (both deceased).
We rang Morse last week to discuss Dregs dynamics in advance of the tour. The arpeggio acrobat behind “Cruise Control” and “Refried Funky Chicken” explained how he reteamed with his high school and college friends, and also divulged the secret to adding other peoples’ songs to one’s repertoire.
AXS: Hello, Steve! So tell us how you got back together with the original Dregs for the upcoming tour.
STEVE MORSE: Actually, we were doing semi-regular short trips every few years. T. Lavitz died, and we later found out that Mark Parrish also died! We hadn’t been in touch with Steve Davidowski. Andy West was our bass player, and he and Allen Sloan [violin], and Rod Morgenstein [drummer] had all been talking, and they tracked down Steve. He was really into the idea. So they all contacted me about it, and I said let’s just get together and play first before we do anything else! So we did that last year, and it went really well. Allen and everyone else I mentioned were all there, so it was the old band again. But there were no promises made, no gigs set, nothing. It was just a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with each other and the music. We played most of the songs from our Free Fall album. So the band now includes everyone from that album. Everybody had something in mind about what a tour would be like, so we said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” I was only imagining a couple short drives to five-star resorts [laughs]! Nah, just kidding! But yeah, everybody’s personality was very similar to what I remember, and everyone’s playing great.
AXS: Did you have to take a leave from Deep Purple to make the reunion work, or was there a window of opportunity for a Dregs tour?
S.M: There was an opportunity, and my manager Frank found out there would be a hole in the Purple schedule, so he instantly just ran and told me! It happened really quickly.
AXS: Was it challenging to relearn the old tunes, or did muscle memory kick in?
S.M: Well, it was both. Muscle memory for sure for most of it, and every once in a while there’s a weird section. For instance, one of the songs we’re doing—“Day 444”—we never played that one together live, so there’s not much muscle memory there! When we recorded it, I started with just a click-track. I recorded my part, and then Lav played, and then everyone else. At some point everyone listened to every song to get all the nuances and so forth so we could do the best job possible. But when we had our get-together last year everybody came prepared!
AXS: How’d you and the others decide which Dregs bits to revisit?
S.M: Everybody talked about what they wanted, then Andy did a poll on our website, and we included the fans’ feedback. We counted those fan results as least as much as another vote in the band.
AXS: As a guitarist, what changes for you when shifting gears from Kansas or Deep Purple to Dixie Dregs? Or isn’t it a “shift” at all?
S.M: With Dregs there are very specific parts in every song. And lots of the parts are counterpoints where I just have to make sure I’m playing the exact same thing as what Andy is playing, or what Allen is playing on violin. That was sort of my thing back then—knowing that we were an instrumental rock band—to keep all the tunes compact, but change just enough to keep peoples’ interest.
AXS: Is your gear the same for each of your bands? Same guitars and pedal board effects?
S.M: Technically it’s different stuff. But basically we’re just raiding the studio for my stuff this time! So it’s similar, but with way less speakers!
S.M: Everything Steve Howe did, I thought it was all very well thought-out. In fact, for a brief period of time I was trying to resurrect a tune I’d written for myself and Steve called “Up in the Air” [from 1982’s Industry Standard]. I wanted to bring it back and do it for a Dregs tour, but that didn’t come to pass. But Steve Howe was a big early influence because he was the first guy I ever heard who could play what he calls “Spanish guitar.” I call it “classical guitar.” But he could do that very well, and also play electric guitar. He was interested in both, and he legitimized the idea that you didn’t have to be just one genre. Another tune we’re going to resurrect is “Go for Baroque.” It starts with classical guitar, and then the whole band comes in. But it starts with classical guitar and gets into a nice counterpoint with the band.
AXS: You did a great rendition of “Joy to the World” back on the Merry Axemas compilation twenty-some years ago. Did you specifically choose that tune for the project, or did you already have that version ready to go?
S.M: That was Steve Vai’s album to put together, and by the time they got to me there were only maybe three choices left [laughs]! “Chestnuts / The Christmas Song” or something like that would be great for somebody who was doing a jazz chordal thing. But I wanted to do a rock version, and you have to kind of rewrite everything about the tune and think of all the possibilities. Dealing with arrangements like that becomes just as challenging as writing your own tune, when you’re throwing in all these things that weren’t there.
AXS: You really made it your own with the killer fills and harmonies. I suppose that’s the trick when you want to put your own stamp on a tune everyone already recognizes as existing in just the one particular way.
S.M: That’s something I can’t help but think about: “Surely they meant to include this part [laughs]!”
Visit The Dixie Dregs online for tour dates and news.