Written by Steve Fleck
My first introduction to Steve Morse was via the 1986 Kansas album Power. One of my favorite all time bands, Kansas had hit the skids in the early 80’s. It was so bad, by the time the abysmal Drastic Measures was released in 1983, they sounded more like Loverboy. Three years later, Power hit the stores with a re-juiced lineup that included Morse on guitar and Steve Walsh back on vocals. While a strong rock record, and a huge improvement over it's predecessor, Power was unable to properly showcase Morse’s talents within the confines of the group. It wasn’t until a friend let me borrow 1985’s Stand Up that I began to understand what Steve Morse was all about…
The Steve Morse Band began in 1984 as an offshoot of The Dregs. Always a power trio, SMB borrowed drummer Rod Morgenstein from the Dregs and equally athletic bassman Jerry Peek for Elektra’s 1984 The Introduction, and 1985’s Stand Up. These were highly experimental projects, utilizing some electronic drums and guitar synths, as well as some great guest spots. Peter Frampton, Eric Johnson, Albert Lee (great rockabilly picking), Alex Ligertwood (Santana singer), and The Dregs own T. Lavitz (keyboards) all added their talents. The result was decidedly like nothing I had ever heard, but I hadn’t really heard The Dregs. SU even featured a handful of vocal tunes to balance the instrumentals, the best being “Distant Star,” with Johnson’s exquisite voice making for great pop.
SMB went on hiatus while their leader recorded & toured with Kansas in 1986-88. Unfortunately, Morse left Kansas less than fulfilled, as MCA records all but ruined their fine concept album, 1988’s In the Spirit of Things in search of a hit. The label reportedly forced the band into recording three putrid cover ballads, which totally spoiled the continuity of the extremely well produced record. Of course, in the digital age, you can edit out these tracks and experience ITSOT the way it was intended. The Morse legacy with Kansas lives on in the blistering live performances, with Morse playing Robby Steinhardt’s classical violin lines on the guitar. Kansas with Morse was indeed power.
Morse’s MCA solo debut, High Tension Wires, was released to extreme critical acclaim in 1989. Not a SMB album, HTW to me is the pinnacle of Morse’s writing and performance. Recorded digitally & no doubt by musicians in separate locations, HTW presents a unique musical journey. Ranging in style from extraordinary mood pieces (“Ghostwind,” “Country Colors,”) to Celtic rock (“The Road Home,” “Highland Wedding,”) and Dregs like southern fried extravaganza (“Third Power”), HTW is one of the best instrumental guitar albums ever.
Change came to SMB for 1990’s harder-edged Southern Steel most notably in the form of the new rhythm section: New Jersey rocker Van Romaine on drums, and the exquisite Dave LaRue on bass. Initially a straight-ahead rocker, Romaine evolved into a player more reminiscent of Alan White than of Carmine Appice as he developed. LaRue was, and is, simply remarkable. With his solid yet liquid touch, LaRue helped Morse lick the studio-to-live translation problem. LaRue could emulate Morse’s own guitar lines live, leaving the master free to choose which part he wanted to play. Check out Morse & Night Ranger’s Jeff Watson dueling to the death in “Cut to the Chase,” and the soaring “Vista Grande,” possibly my fav SMB tune. 1991’s Coast to Coast displayed a nice balance of balls rock (check out “The Z”) and the melodic (“Get it in Writing”).
Another monumental moment in Morse’s career took place in 1993 as he was asked to replace Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple. Never one to refuse a challenge, Morse replaced the irreplaceable, and the interplay between him and The God of the Hammond Jon Lord, especially live, was inspired. Two studio albums, the singular Purpendicular and the more Purplesque Abandon ensued. Many have agreed that Morse totally rejuvenated the feuding Purps, and I concur.
SMB returned to regular recording and touring in 1995 on High Street Record’s Structural Damage. Highlights here are “Sacred Ground,” “Good to Go,” and “Dreamland.” While not as consistent as previous releases, the album’s monster first half more than made up. Ditto 1996’s Stressfest, though this time the stronger efforts were less notable.
Morse went “solo” again with his 2000 Magna Carta debut, Major Impacts, an odd project in which Morse pays homage to his musical influences. The change up is, the songs are all originals, arranged and performed to emulate the likes of Cream, Hendrix, Beck, The Byrds, Page, MacLaughlin, Stones, Mountain, George Harrison, Allmans, Kansas and Yes. Nonetheless, SMB’s Romaine and LaRue back him. The collection is not a total success, but it proves Morse was searching for a different concept and approach.
Just this year, SMB returned with Split Decision, again on Magna Carta. While the band’s chops are evident throughout, the songs all feel way too familiar, and none of them stand out above the formula. Perhaps it’s time the six-time Grammy nominated, five-time Guitar Player Magazine “Overall Best Guitarist” changed things up. What, where, and with whom that is remains for the master to ponder, but Morse has proven time and again that he’s up to the task.