Only a year ago, it seemed, we stood rooted in our favorite spot...some clutching a drink, others with friends or girlfriends that they'd brought for the show, watching the core of White Summer -- James Watkins (drums, vocals), and Jimmy Schrader (guitar) -- tearing the house down with an assorted retinue of special guests.
Tonight, the situation is the same -- a year to the day, in fact -- amid hints that this occasion might mark the last dance...at least, going by the wording on the posters ("The Final Tour"). The feeling is reinforced, naturally, by the song that takes us out of the last set break..."The Final Countdown," as it happens. More on that momentarily.
In another sense, though, tonight feels like business as usual, with bassist Randy Brown back on board -- grounding the bottom with simple, undorned lines, as he usually does -- as Schrader rolls off a succession of paint-peeling solos, and Watkins pushes the beat and works the crowd. When the mood strikes him, Watkins defers the percussive duties to his son, Adam -- who plays in an equally crisp, no-nonsense style -- or Rick Ory, who climbs aboard the kit near the end.
It all feels pretty relaxed and natural. At a time when many bands feel as spontaneous as the Manhattan Project, it's easy to forget how White Summer built up its reputation -- being able to master other people's material, yet inject its own personality into them -- a quality that led to a war chest of some 1,000 songs, providing ample fodder for "stump the band" nights, as its road show rolled on throughout its Midwestern and Southern strongholds.
Those qualities are present and correct in unexpected places. White Summer shows are celebrated for their one-off surprises, and tonight is no exception -- last year's pick was "Main Street," and this year, it's the Rolling Stones's "Street Fighting Man." However, there's none of the clipped-off, boom-tick, boom-tick restraint of Charlie Watts's original patterns.
Instead, Watkins opts for a tetchy, impatient style that fits the song's key lyric ("Well, what can a poor boy do, but play in a rock 'n' roll band?") -- one that carries an ironic twist, given White Summer's many near-misses with the fame and fortune that could have taken them out of their original Berrien County confines.
That same thought is hard to shake when Watkins and Brown temporarily vacate the stage to Schrader alone -- and he responds with an extended trip through "Voodoo Child," which segues right into "The Star-Spangled Banner," and provides the launching pad for "Purple Haze"...just as Jimi Hendrix did so long ago, in the muddy fields of Woodstock. Only tonight, we're seeing it happen in a local venue, delivered by a player who could have found bigger outlets, along with his cohorts, if only the dice had rolled up a little differently.
However, that's all water under the proverbial dam, as tonight is about what's happening onstage now...not what might have been, or should have happened. That ability to live for the moment is the essence of White Summer's approach, and it's the reason why technical problems -- such as the temporary silencing of Schrader's amp -- don't slow the proceedings down for a moment.
As Watkins cheerfully tells the crowd, "We don't rehearse" -- which is why he calls out for "Crossroads," a song that the band hasn't played in nearly 40-odd years, he explains. But the intent rings through, loud and clear, and it's played with rafter-shaking authority. The night winds down with Watkins taking the mike again -- this time, for Bad Company's "Shooting Star," a three-minute summary of one rock star's rise and fall, long before "Behind The Music" took an hour to say the same thing -- followed by a cameo from Dale Parsons for a gritty ride through ZZ Top's "Cheap Sunglasses" (which quite a few people seem to be wearing tonight, funnily enough).
Watkins steps up to the mike for one more number -- "Pride And Joy," an early signature song by Stevie Ray Vaughan -- after commenting, "It's midnight, and I'm almost turning into a pumpkin." The cameras, cell phones and fingers shaking back in his direction from the crowd suggest otherwise; if they had any say in the matter, we might be here until 1:30, or 2 a..m, who knows?
Before we know it, however, the song ends in a flurry of ringing guitar, climbing basslines, and a raspy-throated goodnight or two from Watkins. For a moment or two, the screams of "Encore!" and "One more song" hang in the air, until the house PA kicks into gear...and only then do we know it's truly over.
Time will tell what happens around the bend, but if tonight really did mark the last stand...it'll be one that nobody here forgets, including me.
A FEW WORDS WITH JAMES WATKINS (11/21/15)
As always, when you interview anyone, there's plenty more quotes than the cutting room floor can accommodate...so here are some of the choice bits that didn't make it into the paper. Certainly, we didn't have any lack of subjects to talk about -- including the reissue of White Summer's self-titled debut LP of 1976, and whether tonight's show really did mark the band's final bow.
THE FINAL TOUR?
JAMES WATKINS (JW): When we played in June of 2013 at Chief's (Bar, in Coloma), we announced that as our last show ever, and we meant it. And then, it went so well there -- the place was so packed, and the applause was deafening -- and it just went so well, we said the next day, 'Man, let's do this again -- like, next week!'"
Well, we couldn't do that, because the (other guys) live in Florida, and it's hard to put this together...so, now, the last show is something we say every time, like a joke. I mean, the Who did nine farewell tours, so we don't feel bad yet.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): Funny you should say that...did you ever read the bio of Keith Moon?
JW: No, I don't think I have! I'd like to.
CR: You should, it's a wonderful book...but when they get to '78, there was all that speculation that the Who had hung up their touring shoes. And Keith was asked about this, and his response was simple, and to the point: "Let's not count it out, let's put it too high on the agenda." And I guess that'd be a fair summary of your position, wouldn't it?
JW: Yes. Yes. We have no plans to play anymore after this, but I would not say it's an impossibility.
THE FIRST ALBUM
CR: Indeed. And on another exciting note, your first album (WHITE SUMMER, 1976) is being reissued by a record label in Spain (Guerssen).
JW: Yes, it is! That was a real surprise. That came out of left field. Well, a man in Greece somehow got ahold of our first album, and just loved it. He's got a Youtube channel (check it out: ArtManiac53), where he apparently discovers old, obscure, psychedelic artists.
That's what they call it -- I never called ourselves psychedelic -- and he posted about three of our songs on Youtube. They've had three, four, five 6,000 hits, I think, nothing big -- but nonetheless, I think this record company heard some of that, and got ahold of me.
They wanted to take the music, work on it, and digitize it, and clean it up a little bit. It's going to be released, coincidentally, about the same day of this concert -- although they were not aware of the concert, it's just how it turned out.
Matter of fact, one of our songs has over 11,000 (views) -- what did he say? "Obscure, hard psychedelic rock band from Michigan, USA, an epic, very nice song with strong vocals and great guitars. Written by Jimmy Watkins, the group leader." Well, I didn't even know this was here!
CR: Until he contacted you?
JW: Oh, this guy never did contact me! I ended up writing him and thanking him...but someone wrote to me a couple years ago, and said, "Hey, you know, I just listened to you guys on Youtube!" And I was like, "We're not actually on Youtube, so what do you mean?" "Hey, your first album's on there...a few of the songs, anyway." He has over 3,700 subscribers, who are apparently interested in whatever he comes up with, you know?
CR: So I imagine that you just about fell off your chair when you heard that.
JW: Well, I was very surprised, particularly (since) it was that older first stuff. We, of course, thought our stuff got better (laughs).
Someone else put the whole album on here, in March. I found this just now, while we were on the phone. Someone named Black Widow, who has 1,559 subscribers, put the whole album on here. I don't know who this person is, but they've got our whole album on here...it just popped up on my Youtube page.
"WE'RE NOT DANCERS"
CR: Do you feel like that's a vindication, even if it comes 40 years later, of that material?
JW: Well, somewhat, I suppose, yes. The complaint at the time was, that the music was not danceable...I remember a rock critic from a magazine in Detroit...it might have been called CREEM, in fact.
Her name was Trish -- I don't know much about her anymore, it's been a long, long time ago -- but it always stuck with me that she said, "You guys can really play your instruments, but it's not gonna go over, because no one could possibly dance to it."
That was the farthest thing from our minds. We never sat down and thought, "Hey, let's play music so people can dance to it." That never even crossed our minds at all (laughs)...we're not dancers.
CR: Right. And you certainly were never concerned about what was cool, or what fashionable, at that time.
JW: No! We just wanted to create some art, you know. We wanted to create something that was not there before, in this world that we're in, an expression of ourselves. We were not interested in precision, necessarily, although we were a very tight band, 'cause we rehearsed so much. When you're young, rehearsal's fun. When you're older, it's like work (laughs)...but when you're young, you can't wait: "Hey, let's practice all day Saturday!"
CR: Well, I can't count how many musicians have told me, "They call it 'play', but it's really a lot of work to get it (music) to sound how you want it to sound."
"IT'S THE FEEL"
JW: Yes. Yes. You know, the thing was -- we had a philosophy from the beginning, though, that what it was about was heart and soul. Feeling. It's about "the feel", is actually what I used to call it. What it's about it is the feel, as opposed to classical music, where...
CR: Everything is right in its place...
JW: It's so much about precision, where everybody comes in at their exact moment, and they've all got a chart in front of them, and so on, so forth. So we had a lot of improvisation when we played live back then...still have a little now...not as much.
CR: Might you play any of those songs from that album?
JW: No...you know, Jimmy and Randy weren't on the album. I met Jimmy the year after the album came out, and I never played any of those songs again. I never have. We started new songs that we wrote together.
CR: And so, that was your focus, the new material...
JW: Jimmy and Randy and I started writing songs together, and they, of course, preferred to play those. They were involved in the creative process from the get go. So we never did circle back and play these songs again.
RECALLING UNCLE DIRTY
CR: Where was that album actually recorded?
JW: It was recorded in Kalamazoo, at Uncle Dirty's Sound Machine.
CR: What a name!
JW: Yeah. Uncle Dirty, his name was really Bryce Roberson. He kind of had some fame as an engineer for Chess Records during their heyday, which was like the '60s, I guess, and he wanted to start his own studio. He chose Kalamazoo, I'm not sure why -- I think it was because it was right by the Gibson Guitar Factory.
CR: Yeah, which was still active at the time...
JW: Yes. He had some friends there, and they said, "You should come to Kalamazoo." He was actually right above an enormous music store (The Sound Factory) that was there at the time. The music store morphed into Proco Sound, which is still there. Charlie Wicks was the owner of it, I know he's deceased now -- he was a giant man, like, 400 pounds, or something.
I knew Charlie very well...he used to help bands so much. He would loan people amps, and stuff. This guy was just a fantastic guy that loved rock music. You could be in some kind of jam, and not even have any money, and he'd say, "Well, come on by, and I'll give you a Marshall stack till next week." People just don't do that sort of thing. It was a gigantic music store...people came from miles around. Everybody loved this place.
"WE HAD FAITH"
CR: And now, of course, since you were producing and selling your own albums, long before this became the cool and current thing to do -- how did you go about trying to do that?
JW: Well, we went around and found about 10 record stores, slash "head shops," as they were in those days...let's see now, the one in Fairplain Plaza, was it called Boogie Records? No, Boogie Records was in Kalamazoo. Boogie Records was famous at the time. And we found some in South Bend, and Mishawaka, and South Haven, and Kalamazoo...what is that, maybe a 50-mile radius?
CR: Something like that, yeah.
JW: So that's all we did. We, of course, hoped that someone would hear it, and take off on it somehow, or whatever...we hoped something good would happen. At the time, we were young, and dumb, and naive.
Of course, if I had to do it all over again, I would have taken the band, probably, and have moved us en masse to New York City, and played for free, and starved...and worked as waiters, and all that thing that people do.
But we actually believed we could be discovered in Benton Harbor (much laughter)! You know -- what do we know? We're just kids. But we liked to play music, and we had faith. We did -- we had faith.
CR: What is that keeps the band alive after all this period of time?
JW: You know, there's been some research done on how people, when they get older -- they still like to hear the songs when they were in their quote-quote, heyday, or halcyon days. It seems that an attachment forms with people with the music they experienced during a certain period of their lives, before real adulthood with children set in. In our case, we know that our generation had kind of an extended adolescence. I think, in many ways, it's still going on (laughs).
CR: In many ways, it is, yeah.
JW: When people see we're playing, it reminds them of some great times they had, when they were young, and strong, and felt immortal. And I think that's part of it.
But I think probably the major thing now is that it's a real social event for them. Because they know if they come out, they're gonna probably see at least 10 or 20 people they haven't seen in 10 or 20 years that they'd like to see. They've lost touch, they've moved away, whatever. It's a chance to reconnect.
And, of course, I don't wanna discount the fact that a lot of 'em just wanna hear the band...'cause, of course, they do.
CR: Of course.
JW: A lot of 'em just love the band. And I think it's a little bit amazing, in that we haven't really been a band in 24 years now, so to speak -- a working band. But, yeah, there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for it this year.
12/07/15 (Re-post of original comment):
David Wheeler/White Summer
Cool interview, maybe I’ll make it to one on these concerts one day ;-)