BY JOE BOSSO | FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MAY 2018 ISSUE
They haven’t invented a venue that Rod Morgenstein hasn’t played. From college keggers to soccer stadiums, he’s seen it all during a performing career that’s now in its fifth decade. Be it with The Dixie Dregs, The Steve Morse Band, Winger, or Jazz Is Dead, the virtuoso sticksman has experienced the highest of highs onstage — and a few lows, too.
Now, he’s hoping for a few more high notes with The Dixie Dregs’ recent announcement that they’ll be reuniting with the original lineup of Morgenstein, Steve Morse (guitar), Andy West (bass), Allen Sloan (violin), and Steve Davidowski (keyboards) for a US tour. It’s the first time in 40 years the original members will be sharing the stage together on tour.
“It’s kind of amazing that all five guys are still at it,” Morgenstein says. “A year ago, we decided to get together and hang and jam for a couple of days to see how things felt. Obviously, it went well, so here we are.”
His career with The Dregs and beyond has been mostly positive, and some moments have been otherworldly brilliant. “Thankfully, most of the shows I’ve played have been really good,” Morgenstein says. “And then you have those rare gigs that are beyond great — they’re almost magical. Everything you do is right. No matter what you do, you can’t miss. It’s like you’re at one with the universe, as corny as that sounds, or like you’re having an out-of-body experience. I’ll literally snap back to reality and say, ‘Hey, where was I just now?’ You’re in touch with something way bigger than just playing onstage with somebody. That’s happened a few times — I wish it were more.”
When it comes to bad gigs, Morgenstein is philosophical: “You can’t play for as long as I have without having a few duds,” he says. “The frustrating thing is that you can never tell how things are going to go. You can be psyched up, you can be warmed up and in a great mood, but something goes wrong and the gig turns out weird. Maybe it’s that ‘Mercury in retrograde’ thing.
“You learn to power through a bad show,” he continues. “After all these years of playing, I’d like to think that no one in the audience can tell if I’m having an off night. As long as I’m smiling and I don’t look distraught, nobody’s the wiser.”
Here, Morgenstein recounts in his own words the one show he’ll always remember as the best gig he ever played — and the one he’d like to forget.
This was a life-changing weekend for me and the rest of The Dixie Dregs. It was the first or second time we ever played in California, so it was probably 1977, I believe. A little history first: Years before, in 1971, my world was turned upside down when I first heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I wasn’t that familiar with Billy Cobham, and I had only heard of John McLaughlin from his playing on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. But with Mahavishnu, it was the first time that a group of jazz-oriented musicians was plugging into stacks of Marshalls and combining the primitive power of rock with the intricate harmonies of jazz. I was floored. This was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.
Flash forward six years or so. The Dixie Dregs had a record deal and we found ourselves on the road. We were booked to play the Roxy Theater in LA — two nights, two shows a night, opening for the Billy Cobham Band. By now, I was a huge fan of his. In the days and weeks leading up to it, it was exhilarating and terrifying, because I was going to be the opening-act drummer for one of my idols.
Billy’s band at the time consisted of Randy Jackson on bass and a then-unknown guitarist named John Scofield. I can’t remember the keyboard player. Pretty heavy guys. We didn’t meet Billy before the show, and I don’t remember if we even did a soundcheck. I think it was one of those gigs where our first song was the soundcheck. The Roxy held maybe 500 people, and people sat at tables. If you were sitting in the front, you were literally pressed right up against the stage.
The place had a real intimate feel to it. The Roxy had a curtain that was closed so that the band could come out, tune up, and be ready to play. Then they would announce you and you’d start playing as the curtain was raised. We were so excited. Here we are opening for Billy Cobham, the guy who was the drummer for the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
So they announce us, we start playing “Free Fall,” and the curtain comes up. All at once, we glance out at the front row of tables, and who do we see? Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, John McLaughlin, Lenny White, and Narada Michael Walden. Later on, we were told that Jeff Beck and Joni Mitchell were sitting in the back. Obviously, everybody had all come out to see Billy, but now they were about to see The Dixie Dregs, whom they had never heard of.
When we saw these faces, these people we revered, it was like we were dreaming. “This can’t be happening.” We didn’t say anything to one another, but there was a shared feeling of total freak out. How many of our idols could be in one place — and right in front of us? These were the people who had ushered in the fusion movement.
It was overwhelming. It was truly more than our senses could take in at one time.
Some gigs are tough; other shows play themselves. I remember this one as being kind of tough. I was praying to a high power just so I could hold on to my sticks and not make a fool of myself. We got through the set, and after the performance we got to meet everybody.
This was the absolutely amazing part of the experience. Some of the things they said to us were so beautiful. It was almost like they were welcoming us into the big leagues. To have your inspirations complimenting your playing — it was surreal. When they all left the dressing room, The Dregs were all stunned. “Did that really happen?”
The funny thing was, for all I know, Billy might not have seen us play. I think he was up in his dressing room the whole time. We’re now good friends, but I can’t recall him saying anything to us that night. Another big thing about that gig was, at the end of Billy’s set, he invited all of those guys — Jaco, John, Michael, Stanley, and Lenny — onstage to jam. The stage was so small but it was full of legends. We were now in the audience, right in front of the stage, feeling like we were a part of this incredible family of fusion musicians.
Of course, after all this, we still had to play three other shows at the Roxy, and as I recall it, they were much better than that first set. We weren’t all self-conscious about performing for our heroes, so we were able to just stretch out and be ourselves. But I’ll never forget that first show. Of the thousands of gigs I’ve played all over the world, it really stands out as something special.
The worst gig I played was the last show I ever did with a German band called Zeno. It was 1986 and they were being groomed by EMI Records in England to become the next Queen. The guitarist was Zeno Roth, Uli Jon Roth’s brother. The bassist was Ule Ritgen, and the singer was a guy named Michael Flexig. He had one of those big-range, operatic voices — his intonation was incredible. The band had a lot of potential. They had very melodic songs and great riffs. I had a feeling it could work.
This was a weird time for me. Steve Morse had left The Steve Morse Band to become a member of Kansas, so for the first time in 11 years, I wasn’t part of something. Through a friend, Joe Franco, I heard that this band Zeno was looking for a drummer and the label was totally behind them, and even though the group said they were trying out enough drummers and didn’t need to see me, I flew from Atlanta to New York on my own dime and basically forced my way in. This was totally unlike me — I’m never that bold — but my wife Michele told me not to take no for an answer. So they agreed to audition me, and I got the gig.
Unbeknownst to me, the band had never played a show. They recorded a demo that sparked a bidding war, and then they made a very expensive album with another drummer. When I joined, it was time to get the live show going. I moved to Hanover, Germany, and rehearsed with them for a couple of months. We added a keyboard player, Larry Dvoskin, and a background singer, Michael Lankau, so now we were a six-piece band. Our first shows were a handful of gigs in Ireland, which went well. After that, we got the opening slot on the Black Sabbath UK tour. Things were going okay.
Next, we were put on the third slot of an American tour with Krokus and Keel. Here’s where things started to go downhill a bit. The tour was a little Spinal Tap-ish — shows kept falling out, venues were changed, theaters became clubs and VFW halls. We limped through several weeks of touring, after which it appeared to be the end of everything. Zeno’s record didn’t sell, so that was it. I went back to Atlanta and tried to figure out what to do next.
A short while later, out of the blue, I got a phone call telling me that Zeno had been offered one show opening for Queen and Status Quo at a soccer stadium in Newcastle, England. It was like, “All right! This could be it.” Everybody thought this might start the fire again. I flew back to England and met the band to do the show. We all got in one vehicle, our gear was put in a truck, and the road crew plus all of our suitcases were in a rental van. We took off together to drive from London to Newcastle. We hadn’t even hit the main highway when we saw that our crew had turned off the road and pulled into a pub. We thought that was a little strange, but hey, “No worries. They’ll meet up with us in Newcastle. Everything will be fine.”
Hours later, we got to the hotel, and by the time we went to sleep, nobody had heard from the road crew. We got up the next day — still no word from them. Eventually, we had to go to the stadium for soundcheck. It was time for us to set up our gear, but we had no road crew, so the band, with some help from local crew, had to set up everything] ourselves. And to make matters worse, they had already let people into the stadium. Tens of thousands of people are standing on the field and sitting in their seats as we’re trying to put stuff together ourselves. Nobody could figure out how to assemble my drum riser, so my drums wound up being placed on the floor right in front of Roger Taylor’s ten-foot-high riser. Talk about unimpressive looking. Meanwhile, everything else is going wrong — people are trying to figure out equipment they’ve never worked with before.
Now it’s time for us to perform. Only problem is, we don’t have our stage clothes. The road crew that never turned up had our suitcases with all of our outfits in them. So we had to go back out on stage in the same clothes we were wearing to set up our gear. We’re totally humiliated. Our singer Michael was amazing, but he couldn’t speak English very well. I tried to tell him short phrases to say, you know, like, “Hey, we’re Zeno. We’ve got some songs to play for you! Let’s rock!” But you have to remember, the guy who is going to be taking the stage later on is Freddie f**king Mercury. Michael got through it, but he was shaky. We would play a song, finish it, and crickets. There’s nothing louder than a stadium full of silence. Next song, crickets. Next song, crickets. We got no reaction at all. It was like we weren’t even there.
We finished the set and crept away to utter silence. I was so glad to be done, and of course I’m soaking wet and didn’t have anything to change into. Then the promoter rushed up and told us that Status Quo were stuck in traffic — “You guys gotta go out and do some encores!”
It was insult to injury. We go back out and Mike yells, “Thank yoooooou!” to a crowd that’s looking at us like, “What? These guys again?” We did a couple more songs to no reaction, and then we shuffled off stage again, totally depressed. Could the night get any worse?
And it did. After the show, our tour manager told us to take the train back to London because the highway was jammed. We got to the train station to find all the trains packed like sardines.
They added mail cars at the end of the regular train cars, so we had to go in and sit on the floor — there were no seats. And then all of these people who had been at the show came in. They’re looking at us like, “Wait a second — aren’t you guys the band we just saw?” We looked horrible and grungy, like animals on the floor. It was beyond embarrassing. During the trip, somebody fell onto the tracks and got run over, so they had to stop the train while the guy’s remains were removed. That took a few hours. The whole thing was ridiculous.
We finally got to London the next morning. We walked back to our flat, and there was the road crew, looking all sharp and alert. And get this — they wanted their money! They didn’t ask about the gig. There was no remorse at all. As it turned out, they had gotten drunk and blew up the rental van, but they still wanted to be paid. It was the capper to the worst show ever. And that was the end of the band.