By MIKE CHAIKEN
It’s been more than four decades since Grand Funk Railroad formed in 1968.
But the band that helped define heavy music, American-style, in the late 1960s, early 1970s, is still chugging along and playing live dates all over the country.
The band pulls into Connecticut on Sept. 22 when they play the Ridgefield Playhouse.
Don Brewer was the drummer in the beginning for Grand Funk, and he’s the drummer now.
When asked what he still liked about performing the music of Grand Funk four decades after they set the underground rock world ablaze, Don said, “It’s because it’s what I do. I love doing it.” Don said he loves stepping up behind his drum kit, and watching the faces of his audience light up when they hear a familiar tune.
And after, four-plus decades (minus a hiatus of about 13 years from 1983 to 1996), the band—which now includes original bassist Mel Schacher, guitarist Bruce Kulick, singer Max Carl, and keyboardist Tom Cashion has picked up several generations of fans, Don said. He looks out over at the audience when Grand Funk plays and he sees grandparents bringing their grandkids to the shows. And the kids are singing the words to the songs just as loudly as their older members of the audience.
“Why wouldn’t you want to do this,” said Don. “I’ve been blessed.”
Although some of the music of their peers from the early days has passed into obscurity, the music of Grand Funk Railroad still can be heard on oldies and classic rock stations today. Songs like “Locomotion,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “I’m Your Captain,” “We’re An American Band,” and others still earn airplay on radio stations across the country.
Don explained some of the reason for the longevity of the band’s music was a wise decision to change with the times. Initially, songs like “I’m Your Captain” earned regular rotation on the underground FM radio stations of the day. But to survive, the band had to make the transition to a more commercial sound to get itself heard on the top 40 of the AM radio stations. Hence, tracks like “Locomotion” put the band in front of a much wider audience (which was already pretty big).
A lot of the music from their peers in the 1960s and 1970s sounded like the time period, said Don. And he loved that music and he was a fan of that music. But, tracks like “We’re An American Band” still sounds like they could be hits today.
For some music fans, even though “Some Kind of Wonderful” was a cover track for Grand Funk—it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin— the song will always be associated with Grand Funk.
“We’re An American Band” is an iconic party rock track that details the sometimes sordid backstage life of a band, with references to groupies and wild parties.
Don said things are much more subdued for the band now. After all, they are parents and grandparents these days. But, Don said, Grand Funk was never really as wild as their peers.
In fact, invariably, after a show, Don said some fan will tell the members that Grand Funk was the first rock show their parents let them go to see.
“We were pretty mild and tame, even though we did our share of partying, (the parents) thought we were safe,” said Don.
Grand Funk was one of a myriad of rock trios that burst onto the scene at the end of the late 1960s. Groups like Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience (which got its start in the U.K.) and Blue Cheer were staples of the underground music scene.
Asked about what was it about that heavy music that appealed to these guys from Michigan, Don said Grand Funk started when his previous band, Terry Knight and the Pack, dissolved. He and the band’s original guitarist, Mark Farner, were looking for their next project. The musicians’ new manager, Terry Knight from the old band, told them, “Trios are happening.”
Don said they started looking at that as a possibility.
Most of the trios on the scene, Don explained were blues-based. But the musicians who would become Grand Funk were guys from Flint, Michigan, who grew up listening to rhythm and blues. They decided to take R&B music, crank up the volume, and play “balls to the wall” rock and roll, to offer their own unique twist to the world of trios.
Mark Farner left Grand Funk in the 1990s. And after he left, the question arose as to what to do next.
Don said the band didn’t want to hold a mass audition to find Farner’s replacement. So networking provided the solution.
Don said he was leading a drum clinic and someone introduced him to Max. They spoke and Don went back and listened to some of Max’s previous recordings. And Don said he was floored. “This guy is the last of the blue eyed soul singers,” said Brewer. He was perfect for the band.
Farner played guitar when he was in the band. But Max was more of a keyboardist. So, Grand Funk still had that slot to fill. Don said he decided to contact Bruce, who he had met when he was playing for Bob Seger. (Bruce was playing for Michael Bolton.) The two had a conversation and Bruce agreed to sign on board.
And then Don said he met with Tom.
And soon, the newest version of Grand Funk was pulled together.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Grand Funk has released new material. And although this version of Grand Funk has been playing together since 2003, Don said no new recorded material is in the wings for fans looking for something fresh to pop into their iPod.
“We’re pretty much a live band,” said Don.
That doesn’t mean the band doesn’t have new material. Don said they will toss in a few new songs amidst the classics during their performance.
But, he said, radio has changed considerably since the band’s heyday. Essentially, Grand Funk is a classic rock band. That kind of music only gets played on classic rock stations these days. And classic rock stations won’t play new material, just the vintage classic tracks.
“You’re up against that,” said Don.
And what can fans expect from their live act. Don said they can expect the hits such as “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Locomotion,” and “We’re An American Band.”
“It’s a high energy rock and roll show.”
Grand Funk Railroad performs at the Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge, Ridgefield on Saturday, Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $85.
For more ifnormaiton, go to ridgefield playhouse.org or grandfunkrailroad.com.
By MIKE CHAIKEN