Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: DIXIE DREGS
Album: FREE FALL
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
I’ve mentioned numerous times how, during my high school & college years, I got heavily into fusion, the jazz/rock hybrid spearheaded in the early ‘70s by Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Weather Report, The Tony Williams Lifetime and…for a brief time…Jeff Beck. The combination of instrumental virtuosity, complex arrangements and rock ‘n’ roll energy was too much for me, my fellow music geeks & musician friends to resist. By the time we discovered this music, however, the majority of these groups had disbanded or altered their sound, so while we enjoyed their classic albums from the not-too-distant past, we also sought out any current artists playing this style of music. Enter the Georgia-based quintet Dixie Dregs, who were led by emerging guitar god Steve Morse. Along with violin/strings man Allen Sloan, bassist Andy West, drummer Rod Morgenstein and keyboardist Stephen Davidowski, Morse guided the group through a hybrid of various styles, including jazz, rock, country & southern rock, even entering jam-band territory. They were “fusion” in the truest sense of the word. Over the course of 6-7 years, the original incarnation of Dixie Dregs…with Morse, Morgenstein & West at the core…released six albums (seven if you count their self-released debut which had very limited distribution) and were the gold standard for instrumental music that appealed to rock & jazz fans alike. Morse later formed The Steve Morse Band but also secured high profile gigs with Kansas in the second half of the ‘80s and (for the past two decades) Deep Purple. He’s also recorded two albums of progressive/fusion/melodic rock with one of my favorite modern (super)groups, Flying Colors. Morgenstein ended up with the highest profile as drummer for the much-derided but ridiculously talented Winger.
Free Fall was released in May 1977 on Capricorn Records, a well-known independent label that was home to The Allman Brothers Band, The Outlaws, Elvin Bishop, The Marshall Tucker Band, Sea Level and many other southern rock, soul, R&B and jam bands. With major label distribution, Capricorn was able to put Dixie Dregs on the map with this record, which I still consider to be their debut. The album cover photo, with the band smiling as they exit an airplane in mid-flight (apparently without parachutes) perfectly captures the overall happy & fun yet musically adventurous music contained within. Although Morse was the star of the show, writing all eleven songs, everyone gets a chance to shine, especially Sloan whose violin lines often provide the melodic hooks. “Cruise Control” is the longest song here at 6+ minutes and possibly my favorite. It features a pulsing rock rhythm, fleet-fingered organ, an impressive percussion breakdown, a middle section with Brian May-esque guitar, a staggered prog-rock interlude and some splashy, heavy rock. In other words, everyone gets to show off. “Refried Funky Chicken” is (unsurprisingly) funky & groovy, with chicken-scratch guitar and elements of funk injected into syncopated jazz fusion. After another funky rhythm in the intro, “Moe Down” morphs into an almost straight-up country hoedown. Album opener “Free Fall” is a jaunty tune that veers from light rock to a funky jam-band groove, and features a fuzzy, distorted guitar solo and some great violin work that carries the melody. There’s a Celtic feel to the speedy guitar melody in the opening of “Holiday,” which also includes some cool rhythmic shifts between each section as well as a killer guitar solo. They slow things down on a couple of tracks: “Sleep” is appropriately titled, with Morse’s slowly fingerpicked electric guitar embellished by quiet acoustic strumming & a liquid-y synth line, while mellow album closer “Northern Lights” has Morse on nylon string acoustic and Sloan providing a haunting violin melody. There’s a fanfare quality to “Cosmopolitan Traveler” during the intro, but then it morphs into a tight, slightly funky (there’s that word again) upbeat arrangement with a hint of country and what sounds like a soprano sax solo. Their most traditional jazz-fusion performance here is “Wages Of Weirdness,” with syncopated rhythms and fast melodic lines on guitar, violin & bass. There’s also a super jazzy middle section with a wonderful piano solo. If you’re new to Dixie Dregs, Free Fall is a great entry point into their discography. They would go on to release albums I enjoy even more, but I’ve always been impressed that they could create such a unique, instantly identifiable sound right from the start of their career. It’s another 40-year-old album that still sounds fresh & contemporary, and that will probably be the case 40 years from now.