Trio Grande: reunited Steve Morse Band plays Homer Thursday night
Since the 1970s, Steve Morse has been one of the most proficient, prolific, and versatile guitarists on the music scene. Voted “Best Overall Guitarist” by Guitar Player Magazine five years in a row, Morse has won praise from his peers and fans alike through his involvement in a variety of projects.
After graduating from the University of Miami in 1975, Morse co-founded the Dixie Dregs, which quickly became known for its stellar musicianship and distinctive blend of rock, country, jazz and classical influences.
After the Dregs disbanded in 1983 (they’ve reunited several times since), he formed the Steve Morse Band and released a pair of well-received instrumental albums: 1983’s “The Introduction” and 1985’s “Stand Up.” He then joined the rock group Kansas for a few years before relaunching his eponymous band, which continues to this day. Along the way, also co-founded Flying Colors, an all-star group that also includes Mike Portnoy, Dave LaRue, Casey McPherson, and Neal Morse; they’ve released three albums since 2011.
In 1994, Morse joined Deep Purple, and spent 28 years touring, writing, and recording with the legendary classic rock band. That run came to an end in 2022, when Morse left the band to help care for his ailing wife, Janine, who has been battling cancer.
Morse recently reunited his namesake band, which also includes bassist Dave LaRue and drummer Van Romaine, for its first live shows in 10 years. On Thursday night, the Steve Morse Band will perform at the Center for the Arts in Homer.
In a recent interview from his home in Ocala, Florida, Morse talked about getting back together with the band, his 28 years in Deep Purple, and much more.
Q: How’s it been going so far with the reunion?
Steve Morse: It's going really well. You know, it was a big shock to be out of Deep Purple after 28 years, but it's a really good place. It's like, this is what I was meant to do now, playing music that is challenging from beginning to end with musicians who feel the same way and have known and loved each other for decades.
And we have an amazing rapport with the people that come to the show, as well. They've, they've, they've been lost a lot of other than, you know, dance for most of their adult lives. of instrumental music, you know? Yeah.
Q: Did it take you long to get back in the swing of things with these guys? With your songs, you can’t fake them – you have to actually know how to play them.
SM: Dave lives here in town, so we’ve gotten together to work on things. And Dave and I also did Flying Colors and some other projects together. We’re used to reading each other like a book, and we know exactly what we have to do to prepare.
Dave would come over here every once in a while and rehearse in my studio. And then finally, we got a little bit of time with Van and did a whole band rehearsal. That was fun. But it felt like riding a bicycle, as they say – just really comfortable with no problems.
I remember a very funny moment to me – and it may not translate as being funny to other people – but we're playing some of the stuff that’s mid-tempo, but still very difficult to play. And after finishing one of the songs – from start to finish, it’s a challenge to get it perfect – Dave says, “Alright, that went well. You want to try some of the hard stuff?” I just remember laughing because it's all challenging – nothing is easy. But we've been doing it for a while, and we're able to relax and enjoy it more now.
Q: How have your earlier runs of shows gone so far?
SM: We're doing very short tour legs in order to not be gone from home too long. But it's a nice schedule too because it allows us time to look forward to every gig. And when you're on a long tour, sometimes you don't even know where the next gig is.
Q: I remember when you joined Deep Purple back in the mid-90s, and you commented that “These guys never stop touring; they tour all the time!” Was that a shock to the system at the time, or did you get the hang of it after a while?
SM: You get used to whatever your life requires of you. But once I started playing back with the guys here, and having shorter, more intense periods of concentration on music that required so much accuracy, it really brought back the center of focus for me better than just doing a constant tour where a lot of the material was stuff that I didn't write.
If you're a professional musician, you invest yourself 100 percent in your performance no matter what. But it's just different with this stuff, playing music that I've written with guys who know me and love me. And we all feel likewise. It's been great.
Q: Did your technique or style change at all after playing Deep Purple songs for 28 years?
SM: Yeah, I think so, in my phrasing and just a tiny, tiny, tiny bit more patience with letting things develop. But you can hear that, and a little bit more relaxed approach, a little bit more competence at improvisation. And I’m not driven so much to cram as much in as possible into a segment. So yeah, I feel I've grown as far as being able to write and improvise more melodically.
Q: One of your signature tunes is “Tumeni Notes,” which obviously showcases how fast you could play. Would you write something like that these days?
SM: Well, tempo-wise, I can play in that tempo, but that song has some peculiar parts particular to my earlier technique. And as I developed arthritis in my right wrist from playing 10,000 notes a day for 50-some years, I had to change some parts of my technique. So I can't do that extremely fast, string-skipping runs at that same tempo. I still play at the same tempos but I have to phrase it a little differently and finger it a little differently.
So, with that particular tune, I would have to revamp the B section in order to do it because I can't practice with my flexing my wrist – I use a stiff wrist for practice. And then at gigs, I use three different techniques, or three different hand positions, in order to make all the parts at the gigs. Anyway, just the way it worked out with adjusting my technique is, no, I don't do that tune anymore. But doing things in that tempo with the same density of notes is not really a problem.
Q: When I saw you 30 years ago at the old Haunt in Ithaca, I noticed that you didn’t make any mistakes onstage when you were playing these pretty precise parts. I was very impressed by your technique in a live setting.
SM: In a trio, you have nowhere to hide. If you're going to screw up, it's going to be like putting a big wrench into the gears. So you have to be ready, not only be able to play the parts but be able to play them without really thinking about it while staying relaxed, because that's the only way you'll get musicality and be able to play from your heart.
Q: What sort of repertoire is the band playing these days? Have you been writing any new material yet?
SM: Well, we're doing early and late Steve Morse Band stuff. And we're doing several Dregs tunes that I think work well with the trio. And then in the middle, we take a break and do a few duets with Dave where I play electric classical guitar. And, you know, it's totally different -- like the chamber music kind of stuff that I've written over the years. We try to have a lot of variety in the set because we believe that the audience can tolerate much more variety than the music business gives them credit for.
Q: It’s challenging to just play instrumental music all night – you really have to pace things, vary the tempos, and mix it up.
SM: Yes, everything needs to have different music of colors, moods, and textures. But I've got some secret weapons like Dave LaRue on bass, and Van Romaine on drums -- they're both super musical players but extremely capable of handling anything you throw at them technically.
For example, in my song “Highland Wedding,” there are overdubs on the recording. I was able to give Dave the actual classical guitar part to play on bass, he does it as a polyphonic, with the bass note and melody at the same time, while I'm doing the counter melody. And that's not normal stuff for a bass player. He’s one in a billion.
Q: When you left Deep Purple last year, it was for family reasons, not musical reasons. What was the best part about playing with them for 28 years?
SM: I would say seeing the world. But let me back up a bit. When I was in the Dregs, and the Steve Morse Band, I was told we couldn’t really do much outside the country because we didn’t have huge records overseas. Well, as it turns out, a lot of recordings got copied and sold on the black market – all kinds of different music, all kinds of different artists. And it turns out that we had more people that knew about us than we ever imagined. Traveling around the world, I was able to see that – some of the people would bring in bootleg copies, or copies of records that weren't even officially released in their country. It makes you see how small the world is on that level.
And it brought home to me that you can influence the world, even as a musician. Anytime you have a platform or a microphone, in any sense, I believe you have a responsibility in that you're shaping culture, and how people model themselves in a way. And just seeing that can happen on a worldwide level from a band that was told that they pretty much can only play the U.S. and seeing again, how small the world is as an environment, I thought was amazing.
Another thing is how similar people are. Whether they have different languages, different cultures, different governments, different topography, or different climates, they all respond very similarly to music, and it's all in a positive way. I really enjoyed and appreciated that.
Q: I saw you with Deep Purple on the 2002 tour with Dio and Scorpions, and was impressed that the band’s musicianship was still so strong.
SM: When I first joined them, we only committed to four shows together – they weren’t sure of me, and I wasn’t sure of them, especially since I didn’t want to be in a nostalgic band where the guys couldn’t play anymore.
I was warming up, with just me and my amplifier, and I played something. And Jon Lord had just sat down at his organ and played the exact same thing back to me without any hesitation. I played something else, and he played that back and then modified it. And then I played that new modification back to him. By then, the whole band was on stage playing a beat underneath us – even Ian Gillen started playing the congas – and it was just this wonderful, organic jam. And that’s what really brought me into the band – like, here I am trading licks with a keyboard player who has ears like a great jazz pianist. I couldn't believe it.
And then when Jon left, Don Airey turned out to be just as capable with the musicality – he had a different style, different personality, and different upbringing, but he was exactly the same caliber of musician, so I was very impressed.
Q: As far as new recording projects, and musical projects, do you have anything in the works that you're looking forward to?
SM: I've been writing stuff for the trio to do, but we’re in no hurry with that. Because, like most musicians, we found out the hard way over the last decade that the recording business isn't much of a business for musicians. it's something you do out of love. And you have to understand that there is no way to make it pay enough to spend your working hours doing it – you have to just see it as a love and a hobby. So, there’s no rush, and we’ll just do stuff that we like, and hopefully have something to share with people.
I've also finished another transcription book; it’s of our 2009 album, “Out Standing in Their Field” – I'm very proud of the accuracy level – this German guy just killed it – it's just beyond anything I've ever seen. We’re also looking at maybe doing some more Flying Colors stuff.
But for now, I’m focused on helping my wife transition back to the land of the living. We’ve had appointments all this week, and it’s been just constant stuff. But it's definitely worthwhile and this is definitely what I was meant to do.
Q: One last question, and it’s something I also asked you 30 years ago: Do you think of yourself as a composer who plays the guitar, or as a guitarist who composes?
SM: That’s a very good question. I would say I’m a composer who plays guitar because of some of the stuff I've written on the keyboard and then learned to play on guitar. So, yes, it's about the music. The guitar is a tool to help convey the music that you have inside. So I think the big picture is what you have inside you as a composer.
If you go
Who: Steve Morse Band
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, May 25
Where: Center for the Arts, Homer
Cost: $50, available online here (premium seating is also available)