While studying at the University of Miami School of Music in the early ’70s, guitarist Steve Morse says there was classical guitar and jazz guitar and not a whole lot in between. But when he heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra play at the university, Morse celebrated, because the jazz-rock fusion band, formed in 1971 by John McLaughlin, bridged the gap closer than any jazz Morse had heard before.
Mahavishnu would later become a chief influence on the Dixie Dregs, which Morse formed with fellow students from the University of Miami: Andy West (bass), Allen Sloan (violin) and Rod Morgenstein (drums). After the musicians graduated in 1975, the group relocated to Augusta, Georgia, where keyboardist Steve Davidowski joined and they officially dubbed themselves the Dixie Dregs. Together again four decades later, they're on the road with their Dawn of the Dregs Tour, which stops at the Boulder Theater on Friday, April 13, and Saturday, April 14.
While the Dregs clearly know their way around jazz-rock fusion, there’s a whole lot more thrown into the mix. Morse, the band’s chief songwriter, is a rocker who studied classical guitar (“there was Renaissance music that I really liked”), played in a bluegrass band and had a grandfather who was a Cajun fiddle player. The band also adds country, blues, funk and prog rock into the mix.
The origins of the Dixie Dregs go back to pre-University of Miami days, when Morse and Sloan were in high school and called an early iteration of the band Dixie Grit, writing early prog-rock songs.
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“It was not particularly welcome among the audience,” Morse says. “There would be dances and functions where they would respect a horn band doing show tunes — James Brown covers or something. We didn’t quite fit in. The band broke up, even though we had a bunch of cool material for the time.”
And once the Dregs got going, Morse opted for the instrumental route. “From there we did just weird stuff,” he says. “All instrumental, and we got weirder than ever. We knew everybody was going to hate us. Only the real esoteric audiophile people would listen. And we were fine with that.”
It was clear from the band’s album Free Fall, released on Capricorn Records in 1977, that Morse and company could play challenging instrumental music while also being able to lock into tight grooves.
“As a writer, I’ve always thought you get more expression when you play instrumentals,” Morse says.
While Morse launched his career with the Dregs, he went on to join Kansas in the mid-’80s and later joined Deep Purple in 1994 as well as touring with his own band and the supergroup Flying Colors. But since the deaths of former Dixie Dregs players T. Lavitz in 2010 and Mark Parrish in 2015, Morse says getting the group back for a reunion tour was a bucket-list item for him and that there was no time to waste. He says the tour has been going really well so far.
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“It’s a great reaction,” he says. “It’s a big emotional experience for a lot of the band. It takes them back, in some cases, 42 years.”
Morse says once they started playing again, a lot of the songs came back to everyone really easily.
“There are a few things having a long tour really helps,” Morse says. “You get lots of repetitions doing it. You see everybody just improving daily with their soloing and their ideas and stuff. It’s nice and really gratifying to see that.”
The Dixie Dregs, Friday, April 13, and Saturday, April 14, Boulder Theater, Boulder, $40-$55, 303-786-7030.