Grand Funk Railroad

Del Mar Fair
San Diego, California
06/30/97

by Shawn Perry

Last year, When I first heard that Mark Farner, Don Brewer and Mel Schacher -- collectively known in the 1970's as Grand Funk Railroad -- were going to reunite, I about lost my mind. For as much as I love so many other groups, it was Grand Funk -- even more than Sabbath and Zeppelin -- that transported my tastes from the teeny-bopper and sugar-coated gluttony of top forty to the white-knuckled and in-your-face excitement of underground "hard rock." It was as if a whole new world had opened up for me.

From their first live album through "We're an American Band," I was a Funkhead. I remember going down to the local K-mart, and blowing $3.50 I made from mowing lawns on "Survival." I went home, slapped on the album -- probably their most obscure release -- and plastered the 8½ x 11 glossies of Mark, Don and Mel, dirtied up and decked out in caveman regalia, on my closet door. For the first time in my life, my mother was appalled at my musical tastes. My initiation into the rebellious nature of rock and roll was confirmed.

I can't emphasize the importance of a band like Grand Funk enough. While Zeppelin, Sabbath and Deep Purple were busy churning out some great records during that same period of the late 60's and early 70's, Grand Funk was still the biggest and baddest band at the time. Aside from the Beatles, they were Capitol Records' biggest selling act. They also broke the Beatles' attendance record at Shea Stadium, selling over 50,000 seats for one show, a considerable feat for one band in those days. Songs like "Are You Ready" and "Inside Looking Out" were prime examples of the power and energy of a three-piece that rivaled Cream in pure intensity and musicianship.

But just as things were getting interesting, and I was just about old enough to start attending concerts, Grand Funk broke ranks. They brought in another member -- Craig Frost -- and they went -- aghast! -- top forty. Although they still managed to put on killer shows -- as exemplified on their second live album, "Caught In the Act" -- their studio work was buckling under. After I heard "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "The Locomotion," I stopped buying their records. By 1976, they were history. Even Frank Zappa -- who produced their last album of the 70's -- couldn't save them.

After hearing a couple of half-hearted attempts by Mark, Don and a bass player named Dennis Bellinger in the early 80's, I pretty much gave up on the idea of ever seeing GFR on stage. I figured they would be one of the few bands who would never get back together.

Fortunately, I did get the chance to see Mark Farner play at a club in 1987. Even though he was catering to a Christian audience, he managed to sneak in a few GFR gems. His voice was still there. His guitar playing was awesome. Without Don and Mel, this was as close I was going to get.

That is, until this year. On May 2, I had the opportunity to see the original members of Grand Funk Railroad perform at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. I took along a friend of mine who had seen the band in 1975. We were both curious to see what would happen. Our hope was that the band would indulge us with their early, hard-rocking material and lay-off the poppy stuff of their later days. We weren't disappointed.

The Greek show was a special event for the band. It was one of three shows that showcased a full orchestra. With "I'm Your Captain," their orchestrated magnum opus making the rounds on several "classic" rock playlists, we knew we were in for a treat. What's more, the orchestra was from Sarajevo, and the proceeds from the three shows would go to a Bosnian relief fund. The band was even commended for their efforts by the United Nations. Talk about brilliant P.R.!

The L.A. show also drew a few surprise guests. Former Guns n' Roses guitarist Slash ambled on stage to play "Time Machine." Billy Preston helped out on "Heartbreaker." Bob Seger sax man, Alto Reed blew a few notes on several songs. And the crowd went nuts.

Which left one question: without all the support and hoopla, could Grand Funk -- the "original" three members -- still pull it off? Was it enough to even appease Homer Simpson who may have sounded the call when he went on a rave about GFR during a Simpsons' episode. My suspicions were put to rest at Del Mar.

First of all, after laying out $40 to see the Funk at the Greek, I couldn't believe these guys were even playing the fair. But, then again, the fair has brought in some major headliners in the past. The Allman Brothers played there in 1995. Foreigner was there in '94. Joe Walsh played the week before Funk. And what was I going to lose by paying $6? Still, it was weird to think that this was the same band that used to sell out Madison Square Garden.

When the band hit the stage, it didn't really matter. From the opening notes of "Are You Ready," the audience that filled the race track's grand stands was enraptured. As before, the band offered up a generous helping of their early repertoire. "Rock and Roll Soul," "Footstompin' Music," "Paranoid," "Aimless Lady," "Mr Limousine Driver" and the aforementioned "Heartbreaker" were all delivered with the same intensity as the original recordings. Supplemented by an additional, unnamed keyboardist/guitarist who clearly knew his place, the band's musical muscle shined through brightly.

You'd never know that Mark Farner is almost fifty. Never one to drink or drug it up excessively, Farner exerted himself with all the spirit and wherewithal of someone half his age. Don Brewer, who in my book ranks right up there with John Bonham, Keith Moon and Carl Palmer, never missed a beat. His drum solo -- something that sort of fell out with the closing of the 70's -- was an excellent exhibition of precision and dexterity. Brewer even managed to turn a couple of botched drumstick tosses into an entertaining spectacle. Mel Schacher, as always, held the bottom down with a solid bass line and an assured aloofness.

Even though the band resorted to playing some of their fluffier material like "Bad Time," the energy level never lost ground. From there, they went into "I'm Your Captain," sans the orchestra. It didn't make the slightest difference. The band's execution of this tune, as with every other, was enough to captivate the ecstatic fans.

Thinking that this was a perfect ending, the band bounced back out on stage to play a rousing "Gimme Shelter." Not one for covers of songs already firmly established by their originators, I was still impressed with how Grand Funk managed to make the Stones classic their own. Too bad most people still think their version of "The Locomotion" is superior.

During the show, Farner announced that this was the band's last show before heading home for a much deserved rest. They had just returned from Japan and were glad to be "back on this soil." They supposedly have a live album coming out as well as several new songs recorded. Which could only mean one thing -- in the words of Farner: "GFR is back."

For someone like me, those words are like poetry to my ears.

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