Wrapping my head around the phrase "new normal" has never felt righ to me. It's one of those classic oxymorons -- like "military intelligence," for instance, or "Sears cocktail dress" -- that pepper our lexicon, but fall apart when you think harder about what they actually mean. Yes, we're hunkered down in our various bunkers, venturing only when we must -- mostly, to get whatever ready cash, or household staples, we think we need. (I never thought I'd witness a run on one of mine -- French fries, of all things. Seeing all those empty spaces where the Ore Ida and Our Family bags once sat jammed together still boggles my mind.)
We're doing these things, of course, because we're caught up in a pandemic that makes literary scenarios like "The Masque Of The Red Death" -- or the modern version, Stephen King's The Stand -- seem like a kiddie picnic. Hearing King pooh-poohing comparisons to his 1978 novel ("It's not anywhere near as serious") feels downright surreal, too, to put it mildly, though the interest in more recent fare, like Contagion (2011), is apparently spiking a roaring demand on pirate sites. The brakes have slammed on virtually every aspect of the economy, with the world map turning a brighter, angrier shade of scarlet red, and no discernible exclamation mark in sight. Yes, it's new, all right, but what feels normal about any of that crap? Case closed. Defense rests.
Only a couple weeks ago, we got a glimpse of the real "new normal," in White Summer's return -- or "encore concert," as the band called it -- to the DANK, the second marker of what we might now call the post-Jimmy Schrader era. (See my entry below for my further thoughts on this score.) Drummer-vocalist Jimmy Watkins returned, along with original co-founder, Rick Lowe, with his wife and son, Edie and Matt, rounding out the lineup -- all of whom sing, and swap on guitar and bass -- for what ended up as a night of double-barreled rock 'n' roll, with a few surprises along the way, as always.
That feeling became apparent right from the start of the second set, when I arrived, to find the band blasting through "Two More Bottles Of Wine," by Delbert McClinton, and recorded by Emmylou Harris in 1978. But there's no tender country-rock treatment going on here; in White Summer's hands, the song turns into a galloping guitar fest, with Matt Lowe leading the way, and Edie turning in a gutsy lead vocal, one that suits its subject, of the romantically shafted Everyman ("Oh my baby moved out and left me behind/But it's all right, 'cause it's midnight,/And I got two more bottles of wine").
Suitably primed, the band then dives into heavier, rockier territory, with extended, energetic strip minings of "Nasty Dogs And Funky Kings," and "That Smell." Watkins takes the vocal on the former, as he's often done on past ZZ Top covers, while Matt Lowe leads the charge on the latter, by Lynyrd Skynyrd, peeling off mile-a-minute leads underneath what ranks (after, say, "Chinese Rocks," or the infamous Wings twofer, "Medicine Jar," and "Wino Junko") among rock 'n' roll's most harrowing descriptions of drug abuse committed to tape ("Say you'll be all right come tomorrow/But tomorrow might not be here for you"). Having seen White Summer play this song several times, it's always a highlight for me, as the band never fails to capture the undertow of lyrical menace, beneath the driving riff that powers it ("Ooh, that smell, the smell of death surrounds you").
The Southern rock mood continues with a Watkins-led trip through another Skynyrd song, "A Simple Man," and arguably, its best-known anthem, after "Free Bird," and "Sweet Home Alabama," one that carries an equally somber heft, given the 1977 plane crash tragedy that ended the original band's run ("Oh, take your time, don't live too fast/Troubles will come and they will pass"). Just as quickly, however, the mood turns on a dime, though, with "Last Chance" -- an original song co-written by Schrader, which appeared on the band's last album, in 1990. (For those who want to shop and compare, as they say, the original version is posted on Watkins's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/tallhandsomegenius/videos?view=0&sort=dd&shelf_id=0.)
It's tough, unsentimental, slow-burning blues-rock ("Last chance, what can I do?/Last chance, can I hold on for you?"), and -- to these ears, at least, sounding like the sleeper that Stevie Ray Vaughan never got around to writing -- which Rick Lowe delivers with plenty of attitude of burn, serving as a reminder of what White Summer could have achieved in the bigger rock 'n' roll scheme of things, if somebody had done, say, I don't know...actually woken up and given them a break, or something. But I digress.
The mood shifts yet again, with Rick Lowe leading the band through the Police's last big hit, "Every Breath You Take," which stays faithful to the original vibe -- only with a slightly heavier guitar skirting underneath it. Edie Lowe then returns to the mike for another spirited, guitar-driven look at "Done," The Band Perry's humorous country-pop kiss-off to an ex-lover who's crossed the line a few times too often for comfort ("I don't wanna be your just for fun/Don't wanna be under your thumb/All I wanna be is done, done"). It's essentially the night's sole country-rock number, aside from "Peaceful Easy Feeling" (featured in the first set), but again, offering up another reminder of White Summer's ability to tackle whatever song strikes its fancy.
The rock fever returns with a vengeance, as the finish line beckons ever so closer, as the pairing of "Stone Free" and "Shooting Star" exemplifies, with plenty of six-string rubber burned on the former, while the Lowes' vocal frontline achieves a killer harmonic blend on Bad Company's summary of fallen fortune 'n' fame...only Johnny's descent into the valleys of rock 'n' roll hell ("Don't you know that you are a shooting star?/And all the world will love you just as long/As long as you are") never sounded quite this crunchy, exactly.
But those blistering leads provide all the incentive for the dance floor to fill up again, and stay that way, during the final two songs, "Her Strut" (Bob Seger), which makes its original cousin sound well-mannered and polite, in comparison, and "Home In My Hand," Foghat's 1974 ode to the road ("Well, I got my home in my hand - travelin' across the land,/Tryin' to earn a living, givin' everything I can"), with the Lowes wringing out every last ounce of sweat from those chug-chug-a-chug-chug guitar lines that help it drive home -- and with that, it's over, after one last wash of feedback.
The house lights come up, the crowd calls for more. For a brief moment or two, the prospect of an encore hangs in the balance, only to flicker out almost as quickly. But the point's been made, and the mission accomplished, with all sorts of possibilities rearing up. Maybe more original music? I, for one, would like to hear it, especially in this climate of major bands touring behind full albums they recorded 20, 30, and 40 years ago. Maybe a deeper dive through power pop nuggets from the late '70s and early '80s (as I've also suggested).
Maybe, perhaps, if only...we'll just have to see what the future holds. (Or, as Keith Moon told an interviewer, not long before he passed, about whether the Who would attempt full scale touring again: "Let's not count it out, but let's not put it too high on the agenda.") Hopefully, it'll include more frequent shows, which is something we can look forward to...whenever our current bout of cabin fever finally breaks, and the real new normal returns.
Wrapping my head around the phrase "new normal" has never felt righ to me. It's one of those classic oxymorons -- like "military intelligence," for instance, or "Sears cocktail dress" -- that pepper our lexicon, but fall apart when you think harder about what they actually mean. Yes, we're hunkered down in our various bunkers, venturing only when we must -- mostly, to get whatever ready cash, or household staples, we think we need. (I never thought I'd witness a run on one of mine -- French fries, of all things. Seeing all those empty spaces where the Ore Ida and Our Family bags once sat jammed together still boggles my mind.)
The passage of time is both a beautiful and scary thing. Beautiful, in that it stops, while you're soaking up whatever experience is keeping you diverted at that particular moment; scary, because once that moment is done hanging in the air, and disappears into our memory banks, it's a reminder of how we've grown a little bit older with family members and friends, right alongside our favorite bands, books, cartoon shows, films, TV shows, you name it. Another hour or so older, another 12 months away from sweet 16 on the calendar, like or not.
So it is with White Summer, that charter member of Berrien County's musical legends, who just missed the brass ring, but remain forever imprinted on its musical culture, periodically regrouping for another show or two, for the faithful and the newcomers to the party alike. Tonight marks the latest chapter in that mission, with an encore show from 7:30 to 10:00 p.m. tonight at the DANK, 2651 Pipestone Road, Benton Harbor, MI (also known as "The House of Gemutlichkeit," for those in the know).
The band will return, anchored by drummer-singer-co-founder Jimmy Watkins, along with Rick Lowe Sr. (guitar, vocals); his wife, Edie (bass/vocals); and son Matt (lead guitar), who'll put their stamp on the usual eclectic list of songs, bringing them alive in ways that their creators probably never contemplated, in ways that the audience surely won't forget.
Tonight's song list, according to the band's Facebook page, features numbers from Jimi Hendrix, Lyrnyrd Skynyrd, Bad Company, Bob Seger, Journey, Eagles, ZZ Top, Def Leppard, The Police, Heart, Foghat, Eddie Money, Black Crowes, Robin Trower, Stone Temple Pilots, CCR, Collective Soul, Fleetwood Mac, John Mellencamp, Martina McBride, The Band Perry, Tommy Tutone, Joe Walsh, and Ursa Major.
This show marks the second in a whole new era for White Summer, following the death of lead guitarist Jimmy "The King" Schrader, at 65, in February 2019, in Orlando, FL. Schrader's biting, aggressive style -- one bearing a strong dose of Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others -- pushed and pulled the various reunion shows that I've chronicled here, for the last decade or so, to beautiful peaks of inspiration. His presence always guaranteed that the energy levels would stay up, both onstage, and in the audience.
The new era began last fall, on 11/30/19, with an opening set from Second Chance, the Lowe family's acoustic band -- and then, doing double duty in the latest White Summer lineup, one that changed periodically through the original band's career. However, it's not a question of replacing Jimmy Schrader, though, because that can't be done -- what he did can't be duplicated. Nor would anybody care to try.
The analogy that I use in these situations is the transition that Gene Vincent had to deal with in the '50s, after his original lead guitarist, Cliff Gallup, forsook the road and further recording fame, for a normal life and family, according to Britt Hagarty's epic bio, The Day The World Turned Blue. Enter Johnny Meeks, who said, after hearing his predecessor's handiwork: "I don't know if I can play that way." To which Gene replied, "I don't want you to."
So it is with Rick Lowe Sr., who co-founded the band with Watkins in 1973 -- essentially, the act of "a trio of eighteen-year-olds who shared a mutual love for Hendrix, Cream and Grand Funk among others," say the liner notes from their self-titled first album, reissued on Guerssen Records. Lowe appeared on that album, released in 1976, as part of a 1,000-copy pressing self-financed and distributed by the band themselves, long before technology made that idea more common and feasible today. It's affectionately known as "The White Album," due to its plain white cover. (Schrader joined shortly after the album's release, in 1976-77.)
Rick's vocals on the Joe Walsh standby, "Rocky Mountain Way," provided one of many highlights on that particular fall evening. However, the Lowes didn't lag far behind, with Matt taking his own suitably high-energy vocal turn on Tommy Tutone's power pop classic, "867-5309," with Edie providing strong backing vocals.
That energy didn't flag for a minute, as the Tutone song led straight into "I Think I'm In Love" (Eddie Money), this time with Edie taking charge of the vocal this time, while Watkins, who kept a crisp and firm hand on the beat throughout, and Matt's equally commanding leads rose to the fore.
Watkins, in turn, contributed his own distinctive vocal on "Just What I Needed," a signature song from the Cars, that put them in the map in 1978...after they'd made a splash with their first hit, "Let's Go," whose guitar hook (DERR, DERR, DERR/DAH-dah-DAH) had already burned its way into my teenage brain that particular summer. Hearing these power pop flourishes proved particularly surprising, coming from a band most commonly associated with classic and progressive rock.
Yet it's another reminder of their adaptability and versatility, especially when you're bringing other peoples' songs to life -- don't forget, though, these are the guys who enjoyed playing "stump the band" competitions, armed with a 1,000-song list! When it's all said and done, making and sharing music is all about community and creativity. What we do with those last notes, once they've rung out of the amps and microphones, and into our brains, is up to us. Look for all these qualities to be present and correct tonight.
When we last left White Summer, drummer-vocalist James Watkins, bassist Paul Stuckey and guitarist Jimmy Schrader were barreling through the collected works of Creedence and Jimi, Pink Floyd and ZZ Top, among others, as part of their latest "last next" reunion show. With "Comfortably Numb" rounding out the first set, the natural question arises: what'll the boys cook up, once they make it back from break?
The answer flies thick and fast, with a double-time romp through "Crossroads," the Robert Johnson remake that graced Cream's third album, Wheels Of Fire (1968). It takes a power trio to bring something from rock's original power trio alive, allowing plenty of room for Schrader's paint-peeling guitar flourishes, and Watkins to bring his own muscular brand of Ginger Baker- and Mitch Mitchell-isms to the fore.
How do you follow that, exactly? By radically shifting down the gearbox a notch, to "Time," a keynote from Pink Floyd's conceptual blockbuster, The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973). (The world's longest-charting album reappeared in 2009, and has racked up an additional 900 weeks to a 15-year/741-week run that ended in 1988 -- what, nobody checked with San Marino, and Yemen? But seriously...) David Gilmour's guitar solo ranks among rock's most familiar, and oft-quoted, yet Schrader pulls off the tricky task of matching its original hefty Stratocaster bite, while finding for a few of his own flourishes.
But it doesn't take long for the mood to get rowdy again, as the massed dance floor rally ignited by "Gimme All Your Lovin'" suggests. Then, without skipping a beat, it's off to further barn burning pastures with "Roadhouse Blues" -- with Watkins stepping out from behind the kit, to deliver the Doors' famous opening command ("Oh, keep your eyes on the road, and your hands upon the wheel" -- ah, if only Jim Morrison's tipple of choice had been Hawaiian punch? The possibilities are endless.) This option allows his son, Adam, to ably fill in the percussive blanks, while Stuckey keeps the beat moving at his respective station.
That configuration holds true for a storming version of "Hard To Handle," done Black Crowes-style -- their 1990 version surely ranks among the best known of the many, many takes on Otis Redding's soul crusher -- and it's fair to say the energy here doesn't let up an ounce.
But, with Lisa getting tired, that's where we must leave this year's reunion writeup, having compromised on the point of our exit. But we're still feeling plenty of the energy ourselves, as you'll see in our post-concert conversation, in which we cover the play-by-play via guitars and drums (as opposed to, "Should they have run or passed?", on whatever down we blinked and missed). Time will tell how the "next last dance" pans out, but if it's not so...well, it's fair to say that the road to a good night out next year runs through Hidden Pointe.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): All, we're coming out of the White Summer show, here at Hidden Pointe. Lisa's fresh from her first experience of hearing White Summer live: what did you think?
LISA D. QUINLAN (LDQ): Oh, I liked them a lot. Cover bands are usually just so-so, but they were pretty good.
CR: Okay. Well, what lifts them above the standard issue cover band?
LDQ: I don't know, they had a lot of energy. The music was pretty good, the singing was more powerful, they kept to the notes better. I've heard cover bands screw up music, but I only see so many (laughs). I've only seen a few.
CR: You know how they screw things up? A lot of them pick songs they like, but can't really sing.
LDQ: Yeah, that's what I'm saying. These people, I could tell, picked songs that they could sing, and keep the notes on, so...
CR: Of course, Jimmy Schrader, plenty of liveliness there -- he sounds like a white Hendrix, at times.
LDQ: Yeah, he was pretty good. I always like it when bands cover Pink Floyd. They're not the easiest songs to play, but if people can pull them off, that's a good sign. I liked their versions of the Floyd songs, and the ZZ Top songs. I used to listen to ZZ Top in the '80s, so that brought back memories. That's going way back, on that: I know some people still listen to them, even.
CR: What other songs did you like?
LDQ: The Lynyrd Skynyrd song was all right. I'm not as much versed on classic rock. I knew some basic classic rock. I've always been a Pink Floyd fan, and I really was into ZZ Top. I'm less familiar with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a couple other songs they played, but recognized them from the radio.
CR: Any other high points for you?
LDQ: No, they were pretty good. It sounded like they stuck mostly to the '70s, maybe the early '80s. Pushing to the later '80s, I think, would be an experiment, but I think they had a pretty good overview of the '70s and early '80s.
CR: At their peak, they had 1,000 songs on their list...
LDQ: Wow, that's a lot! That would be cool, to know that many songs. That's even more than people could do in karaoke (laughs).
CR: Yeah, well, it'd be a test of your memory, for sure.
LDQ: So, no, it's good to see some real bands here, every now and then, even though we live in a small town. We didn't have to go to Chicago to see them.
LDQ: I (also) saw the Five Emprees a couple times. I'm hearing impaired, so music's a different kind of phenomenon for me.
CR: It's good to see you embracing it again.
LDQ: Yeah, I can hear just enough to get the basics out of a song, but some parts are probably missing, even with the hearing aids.
CR: Well, why do people gravitate to music in the first place? Because it's one of the things that helps keep us human.
LDQ: Oh, yeah, that's true. I always liked music, you know that. It's one of the major arts for a reason.
Make no mistake, anniversaries often feel like a double-edged sword. On one hand, each milestone that we reach reminds us, like it or not, that we've come just a little bit farther away from sweet sixteen, and the world we inhabited at the time. But then that's why we're always glad to revisit an old favorite, whether it's a book, movie or band, and not only because we know what we're getting (roughly speaking). We also want a reminder of why we fell in love with that old favorite in the first place, which tends to work wonders when our here 'n' now feels arid 'n' tepid, draggin' 'n' saggin', uninspired 'n' tired, take your pick.
That's how it goes with one of Berrien County's major underdog legends, White Summer, whose annual gig at the Hidden Pointe event hall, funk park and go-kart track has become a rite of fall, a reassuring sign that our world hasn't wobbled off its axis yet. There's no agenda beyond three guys throwing down and blasting through those songs we've all heard a million times, as if life depends on it, for one night only, as the saying goes: if you blink, you'll end up waiting till next year, simple as that.
Yet this show -- like the others I've seen, and chronicled -- is hardly some paint by numbers exercise, as drummer-vocalist James Watkins made clear on the band's Facebook page last month: "We were not imitating the particular recording of a song that made it famous. We were interpreting the song itself, and playing our own version of it." That philosophy undoubtedly proved helpful in amassing a playlist of 1,000 songs, he further elaborates, that prompted games of "stump the band," with the audience trying to call out a song it couldn't play. Those occasions, I reckon, were few and far between.
What that means, as the first set progresses, is plenty of room for individual flourishes, whether it's the emphatic drum roll accents that spice up "Comfortably Numb" -- one of two Pink Floyd songs that we get tonight, plus "Time" -- or the ripples of string bends and squeals that guitarist Jimmy "The King" Schrader effortlessly peels off during "Hey Joe" and "Red House," in which he stays true to the basic blueprints of those songs, yet finding plenty of space to make room for his own voice. Hearing him play, it's amazing to think that he didn't reach the same heights as much, much bigger names of the era in which he came up (like Jeff Beck, or Eric Clapton, for instance, two other comparisons that spring to mind, depending on the solo).
Yet the variations don't stop there, as we realize when the band uncorks ZZ Top's "Gimme All Your Lovin'." taken at a less emphatic, yet equally funky tempo as the original -- and one that cause a mass exodus to the dance floor, with plenty of arms thrown up in the air, like you don't just care, as that well-worn phrase would have it. When Lisa was asking, "What is it," my ears needed a couple bars or two for confirmation -- but that's what you get, once a band puts its own stamp on the proceedings.
A paint by numbers outfit couldn't ever do that, let alone switch on a dime from the stripped-down, lean 'n' mean funkiness of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Green River" ("I can hear the bullfrog callin' me") -- howled with suitable gusto by Watkins -- to the blues-rock whomp of "Jesus Just Left Chicago," the other ZZ Top number we get during this first set, or even the '70s Southern rock thump of "Gimme Three Steps," by Lynyrd Skynyrd (one of several agreeable vocal turns from bassist Paul Stuckey, standing in once more for his original counterpart, Randy Brown).
Yet White Summer does all these things, and more, within the confines of a traditional bar band/club band format, while managing to find plenty of suitable breathing room outside of it. That approach also guided the band's five albums, all self-produced and released -- starting in 1976, with their self-titled debut, right on the cusp of the punk and New Waver era that made common currency out of such gestures. Like many bands, then and now, White Summer seemingly always stood one gig, one song, one shot at breaking out beyond Michigan -- and later, Florida, where the band moved, after the former state raised its drinking age in 1978, causing the club scene to contract -- yet, for whatever reason, couldn't catch a break.
All the same, White Summer stuck to its guns, trends be damned, as Watkins explained: "Bands were told to wear matching uniforms, do steps (choreography), to never mingle with the audience, to have no time between songs, to do the same sets every night, to copy songs note for note, even to wear wigs. We said no." Big time or small time, that kind of attitude that wears well over the long run, and explains why the crowd still comes out. Time will tell how long the band keeps the flag flying, and the flame burning, but on the evidence of this night, there's plenty of fire left to go around.
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 a hold 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 a hold 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.
(Re-post of original comment): David Wheeler/White Summer Cool interview, maybe I’ll make it to one on these concerts one day ;-)
"Turning point" is such an overused rock 'n' roll phrase, especially in White Summer's case - with Jimmy Schrader (guitar) and Jimmy Watkins (founder, drummer, vocalist) being the only original members who've stayed the course since this legendary Berrien County band began in 1973. (Schrader joined in 1976, while two other former members - Jeff Aldrich and Ron Rutkowski - have since passed away.)
Having had more members than any chronicler cares to count, and more comebacks than Richard Nixon - the first annual reunion shows began only a couple of years after the band hung up its rock 'n' roll shoes in 1991 - it's fair to assume that the White Summer story hasn't followed a predictable, clock-punching order. Who knows, maybe some smart patron saint of cult movie causes will put White Summer's story on the art house screen some day - how many local heroes have rubbed shoulders with Eric Clapton, and Neil Young? (See my previous entry on the 2011 reunions for further reference.)
Along the way, White Summer found time to record and put out five albums of original material - long before such gestures became hip, or commonplace - but that isn't the focus of tonight's little soiree, whose set tilts firmly toward the blues/boogie/classic rock end of the equation - and one that Schrader lifts to a decidedly higher level through his tasty, but fiery, playing style. When I arrive, he's wowing the Hidden Pointe faithful by kicking the wah-wah - then taking the strumming out of the picture entirely, while leaving his left hand to wiggle the fretboard...without racing up and down its confines like some kind of aimless greyhound.
Trust me, as often as you've heard some of these songs - whether it's the umpteenth time on the radio, or some other local hero exhuming them for the umpteenth-umpteenth time - you haven't truly heard them until you see the Schrader-Watkins axis put its own rugged no-frills stamp on the proceedings. And that's the acid test for anybody doing someone else's song - as the Clash demonstrated with "Police And Thieves," or Jimi Hendrix proved with "Wild Thing," at Monterey Pop, before that can of lighter fluid reared its fortuitous little head - and White Summer is no exception.
They have a knack for making the well-worn likes of "Gimme Three Steps" - ably sung by bassist Paul Stuckey, standing in for Randy Brown - like it's a song of theirs, which is no mean feat, and one reason why the faithful still come and pack the place out. What's even more amazing is how firmly that interplay holds, while assorted special guests jump in and out of the picture, during the final set...there's Dawn Dee, holding down the Ronnie Spector-style fort on "Two Tickets To Paradise" (but not "Take Me Home Tonight" - maybe we'll get that one next time around, who knows)...followed by Rick Ory, playing some crisp, galloping drums on "Shooting Star," and "Born To Be Wild"...while Jimmy's son, Adam, darts in and out for his own series of percussive cameos.
In some ways, we might bill this night as the White Summer Revue A-Go Go, but - as I've already mentioned - the center holds firm throughout, just the way you remember it...only colored with splotches of Schrader's own blazing guitar work, while his partners in crime don't let the beat bog down into a ham-fisted display of pyrotechnics. That's apparent on lower-key numbers where Schrader takes a backseat, like "Down On Main Street" - while I've never been much of a Bob Seger fan, I confess to having a soft spot for this song, which the band reels off with gusto, as Schrader makes those between-verse leads ring louder, longer, and with more wtisfulness than the radio version.
He also expertly fills in the orchestral passages during "Comfortably Numb" - though it's s strange to hear such a downbeat song ending a seat, especially when the crowd seems to want the White Summer High Energy Meter For All Occasions to keep on burning the grid down.
However, the encore puts things right fast enough, as Dale Parsons gets up to sing two back-to-back ZZ Top numbers ("Tube Snake Boogie," "Cheap Sunglasses")...before handing off the mike to yet another special guest in Freddy Brecht...who wastes little time channeling his inner lemon squeezer with Led Zeppelin's "Rock 'N' Roll, one of those heads-down, no-nonsense basic rockers that crowds - then, and now - don't ever seem to stop expecting, or demanding.
However, the song serves its purpose - putting yet another exclamation point on the latest snapshot of White Summer's long and winding road (sorry, pun fully intended - it's been another late night at the computer, only this time, it's one that I'm blazing for the sake of my own amusement)....and a satisfying night for yours truly, who missed the last reunion get-together at Chief's Bar (Coloma, MI), due to an earlier than anticipated starting time imposed by the venue in question...which meant that I got there just in time to see Watkins and his cohorts breaking down their equipment!
I can laugh about this one now, but did my face burn ever so red with embarrassment then...at any rate, it's good to see the White Summer banner flying again, surrounded by so many of the familiar faces who patiently wait for the next turning point in the story - so here's looking at 2015, and beyond.
IT MUST BE THE '80S: THAT (DATED) GATED DRUM SOUND CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): You guys actually did record original albums...from what I could pick up on [through the press release], a lot of that stuff was almost done against the odds, wasn't it? Because you never really had much support, in the way of major labels, management companies, or anything like that...
JIMMY WATKINS (JW): You're about right on that, yes. One album was on Whalesville Records, which was started by a couple of executives that had just left Atlantic. But they really kind of ruined the record, I thought, because they came in and told us everything we had to do. I won't bore you with all the details – they said, “OK, every song has to be 110 beats per meter.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
They said, “Well, we've done scientific research...that is the exact beat that sells the most records. Every song has to start with the main melody of the chorus, but instrumentally, and then, in 10 seconds, the vocal has to come in. And you can't do any drum rolls or guitar licks that people don't expect, because people don't like to be surprised.” Every neat little thing we did, that was really ours, that we really felt good about – they took all that, totally homogenized it. It wasn't just us. If you think about it, they homogenized all the music at that point.
CR: Well, just that horrible gated drum sound that has dated pretty badly – to name one obvious example, I guess...
JW: Exactly, the gated drum sound, sure.
FAME IS A HARSH MISTRESS (PT. I: THE '80S)
JW: We were tentatively hired for a record contract by United Artists, and we had to go to Miami to meet some bigwig, sign these papers. This was right at the height of the Bon Jovi, Ratt, Poison (era)...all the bands that were young, skinny, long-haired, good-looking.
The guy told me, and I'm not kidding you: “Look, we'll let you guys record the album. I couldn't put you on the cover, 'cause nowadays, the only bands I'm signing are bands that I could find on a teenage girl's wall, on a poster. Now, what I might do is have you guys give us your songs, record them in the studio, with our producers – and we'll send a band of young, skinny, long-haired guys out to do live appearances.”
CR: And you basically said, “Get lost”... (JW laughs.) So, after the fourth album comes out in 1990, that's when things wind down, isn't it?
JW: We started hearing people yelling for MC Hammer while we were onstage,“Funky Cold Medina” started to come up on request lists, things like that. I mean, we did the other trends – we did disco when we had to, for maybe a year – but we said, “You know, we're not about to start talking into the microphone with sampled music behind us.” So I, at least, decided to quit.
Frankly, my guitar player and I had been touring together for 16 years. He and his family, even more than himself, depended on me to always take care of him. A couple of years before I quit playing, he met a woman and got married, a wonderful woman he's still with today. And I could see that if I quit, he would still be well taken care of. He's still into playing music today. In fact, he's in a very good band, from what I recall: Bad Mannerz.
FAME IS A HARSH MISTRESS PT. II (THE '90S)
CR: When you look back, what was the best album that you did, and why?
JW: Our last album was the best. Number one, that was the best band we ever had, the best songs we ever wrote, and the best studio we ever recorded in, the Platinum Post. On the schedule board up there, it said, “Al DiMeola, White Summer, and Judas Priest.” I thought, “Oh, boy, this is pretty good company to be in!”
CR: Yeah, I wouldn't argue with that [much laughter at this point]!
JW: Yeah, if anything, the stars seemed really aligned, just perfectly. Before we started recording, editing and mixing that album, I told myself, “If this doesn't work, I'm going to have to quit, and do something else.” Plus, rock 'n' roll was fading a bit, with all this rap, and sampling, and all that...
CR: So, then, you put this album out, and it doesn't work...
JW: Well, it worked, you know, for awhile. It looked like, “Wow, this thing will really take off!” It went like gangbusters, it seemed, for a month or two, and then it just fizzled right out. It was over.
CR: That had to be a kick in the teeth for you, I'm sure...
JW: The whole thing was a really emotional ride, I tell you. The whole thing. But nonetheless, I decided to hang it up. Everybody else but me kept on playing. They just went out and found themselves bands to play with.
WILL THE REAL WHITE SUMMER (...PLEASE STAND UP?)
CR: You mentioned a couple people using the same name, and they've caused you a little bit of a headache, I guess.
JW: I'm not a real big YouTube guy, but somebody called one day – a good friend, he's kind of laughing: “Boy, you guys really sucked when you were young!” I was like, “Well, what do you mean?” He goes, “Yeah, I saw you on YouTube, playing...” He named some Led Zeppelin song.
I thought back, “We've never played that song. What are you talking about?” He told me how to get there, the exact link – these are young kids, 19 years old maybe, [from] Alberta [Canada], or some place. As I looked further, I found one in Australia that was almost the same – young kids. I mean, they weren't bad for their age, but I sure didn't want them representing me, my band, and my band name, you know?
So I wrote to both [bands], asked if they'd please stop using the name – or at least, change it a little bit – and neither one of them even responded.. I talked to a lawyer friend – I don't have money for lawyers, these days – and he said, “If they're in other countries, you have to have an international copyright on the name. Do you have that?” I said, “Well, heck, I don't even know if we do. As far as I know, I've never heard anything about international in relation to our copyrights, which were done nearly 40 years ago.” So, anyway, it's too bad.
LIFE AFTER WHITE SUMMER
CR: What do you actually do for a living?
JW: I write Internet magazine articles for HubPages. I've got 249 articles on HubPages right now, and three books in the pot. One of them is a history of the United States during my lifetime, which is 1955 till today – I'm really into history. That's my favorite subject.
I'm furthest along on a history of the Christian faith, from the time of Jesus, till today. That one has been sent to an editor, so it may end up being first. It wasn't supposed to be, but it looks like it's just further along. The other one is primarily about interracial dating and marriage, but it also hits on themes of race in America. The problem, in all three cases, is whittling it down, because I don't want to put out a book of over 200 pages, being a first-time author.
CR: I'm surprised you've never thought of writing about your experiences with White Summer...I think that'd be almost a natural thing.
JW: Well, I actually did write that whole story, from day one, all the way through – and a lot of it's really funny. I've got a lot of really funny things that happened over the years with the band, that I wouldn't put in any family newspaper. But I have written the book you're talking about, and I finally shelved it. I thought maybe people wouldn't be that interested. If I get a book out there that enjoys a modicum of success, I'll probably go back to that, once I have some readers.
WHITE SUMMER'S RETURN
JW: We decided, before very long, that every year we'd do a one-night only concert – in Michigan, or Florida – so that in one week, we'd get together and jam, and also, so our good friends and fans can enjoy a night with us, and us with them. It's worked out to about every other year. I think this is the tenth one [reunion show] we've done in 20 years.
We were up here in, I guess it was, '08. Jimmy and I were I in Benton Harbor for Thanksgiving at the same time. We went to Czar's, and jammed with the band that was there. They recognized us and asked if we'd come up and play. So we played a few of their songs.
(Czar's owner) Tom Jennings came right over and said, “Who are you guys? What's the deal here?” We told him , and he'd heard of us. We told him that we still get together, and he said, “Well, if you do any reunion things, I want you to do 'em here.” So we (first) did it (at Czar's) in June '09.
LOOKING BACK: “IT WAS A REAL MOMENT”
CR: What do you think the highlight (of White Summer's career) was, that sums it all up for you?
JW: I'm not sure I can pick a clear winner. Playing for 40,000 people at Indian River Music Festival could easily be the highlight. You dream about playing for a crowd that size; that's a lot of people. Jimmy Schrader played the Jimi Hendrix version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That was right in the middle of (Operation) Desert Storm. And when he did, all those people stood up – it was a Sunday afternoon, so they were sitting in the grass. They stood up and put their hands on their hearts, virtually all of them. It was a real moment.
But other than that, when our fourth album got airplay on about 100 radio stations – that was pretty big, too, because we heard it lots of times. And boy, that's an exciting thing, when you're riding in your car, turning on your radio, and it's you! I don't know if I can pick between those two – they're different experiences. One's live, and one's on the radio, but those would probably have to be my two highlights.
Thank you so much for this aritcle, it saved me time!
In any phone interview, there's always a few elements bound to hit the cutting room floor...and my chat with White Summer's longtime drummer, James Watkins, was no exception. Now that the dust has settled on my writeup of the reunion show, here's a glimpse of what else we talked about during those 45 minutes...in this installment, we look at White Summer's beginnings and philosophy as it roared through the '70s. For additional information, just scroll down further below to James's press release.
THE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS
JAMES WATKINS (JW): We've got a band, in certain circles, that is very well-known in this area for a long, long time. There's only three of us. We have a terrific bass player [in Randy Brown] from Saginaw, MI, who toured with the band for about five years – and then myself, and Jimmy Schrader. We're both from Benton Harbor originally, although we don't live there now.
There's no question that the blind guitar player [Schrader] is the star of the show. There's no doubt about that. It's not that the whole band is not good, but the guy is just jaw-droppingly fantastic on the guitar. The thing was, he couldn't find a band – because everybody was like, “Well, I'd have to lead the guy around to the bathroom, or on the road...”
But when I heard that boy play in his basement, within less a minute, I said, “You know what? I'll lead you anywhere you need to go, buddy.” And I'm telling you, I've seen all the greats live – Jeff Beck, [Eric] Clapton, Al DiMeloa – and this guy is every bit as good any of 'em. He never made it to the big time, that's true, but a lot of that's luck, as I'm sure you know.
CR: Or, as I like to joke: if you're making a Sweet/glam rock [style] album at the height of disco, don't expect as many people to return your calls.
JW [laughs]: That's exactly it, that's what I'm saying – we had an ugly band during the pretty band days, and a pretty band during the ugly band days! We never could quite get the timing right.
PLAYING LIVE: “HE LIVED IN A WORLD OF SOUND”
CR: At the time you started, what was your original goal, once you found that synchronicity with Jimmy onstage?
JW: Since he was blind, he lived in a world of sound. And I started closing my eyes when I played, which I hadn't done before I met him. But I started closing my eyes when I played, and strictly go into a world of sound only, the world he's in – and we eventually developed such a communication. We did a lot of ad libs, a lot of improvisation. But I always knew what he was gonna do, and he always knew what I was gonna do, after a couple years. This really is a magical thing, when that develops.
CR: Very much so. Well, one of the things I've been listening to a lot lately, is LIVE AT LEEDS – and, of course, that's what that album's all about. So I imagine you were getting pretty much to that level, every night.
JW: Yeah, sure! Well, we wanted to make music. We wanted to write songs, wanted to be artists, and – of course – wanted to make a living doing it, so we wouldn't have to do anything else. That's what our goal was, right there.
CR: In the grand scheme of things, we didn't quite get there – and yet, you succeeded, because we do still talk about you guys, after all this time.
JW: It's strange, 'cause if you look at it from one side of the coin, we were a huge flop. But on the other side of the coin, we were pretty successful, more successful than any other band from around my area, Southwestern Michigan. It's really kind to figure what to make of it, even today.
BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS (...AT THE HOUSE OF DAVID)
CR: I imagine that [playing at the House of David Beer Garden] was an interesting time for you, too.
JW: There was no music at the House of David for a long time. I don't know how many years, but it was quite awhile. And I met a friend, one of my best friends, actually. A friend of his cousin was an ascendant of the House of David, and he took me over there to meet a guy who'd been a bandleader.
He was, like, ninetysomething years old, a real nice old fella...sat down and played the piano for me. And I got to telling him, “We'd like to have some rock 'n' roll shows at the House of David” – because I'd only loved the place since I was a little boy. My dad used to take me there. Anyway, he said, “Well, you know, I like you. You can do anything you want there.”
We put on Blood, Sweat & Tears there, September 2, 1977, and we were the warmup act. I think they played one of their hits first, “Spinning Wheel,” and [for] their second song, they played a 20-minute, slow, jazzy tune. They were great musicians, but it seemed like an odd choice, you know? We just warmed them up with some pretty hard-driving rock 'n' roll – not heavy metal, but pretty hard-driving rock 'n' roll – and the crowd started chanting, “White Summer, White Summer!”
I'll tell you, I was embarrassed by it. I had nothing to do with it, but he [Blood, Sweat & Tears lead singer David Clayton-Thomas] got mad, stomped off, and went down to the dressing rooms – which, if I remember right, were below the stage – and it was heck coaxing him back out there. But he finally did get back out, and resume the show. It took awhile. He was really mad about that, because we were nobody, we were just a local act. So it was an insult to him, with three platinum albums on the wall. I could understand his feelings about it, but...
CR: Hey, that's showbiz, right?
JW [laughs]: Yeah, I guess!
E.C. WAS HERE (...AND SO WAS NEIL)
CR: So, how come, when Eric Clapton said, “This is the best band I've ever seen in a bar”...did any of you ever start clearing your throat: “Hey, Eric, we've got some [open dates]...”
JW [laughs]: Well, you know, I'll tell you what happened: he was surrounded by about 50 people, I think. All I know is, I got offstage, and I saw a mob of people in a circle, or a semi-circle, over near the bar – and I asked somebody, “What's going on over there?”
They said, “Eric Clapton's over there!” I said, “No, he's not!” They said, “Yes, he is! He's sitting over there at the bar.” So I waded my way through all the people, pushed 'em aside, got there to him – and he said, “Oh, you're the drummer?” I said, “Yeah.” And that's when he said what he said [“This is the best band I have ever seen in a bar!”]. Then he said, “Can I come back tomorrow night, and jam with you guys?” “Geez, of course!”
CR: Wow! “Oh, I think we can manage that...”
JW: So that night, I called my mom, my brother, my sisters, my aunts, my uncles, my nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, acquaintances, and probably even a few strangers, to say: “Tomorrow night, Eric Clapton's coming down to sit in with us!” And he didn't show up [much laughter at this point].
CR: What was the encounter with Neil Young like, by contrast?
JW: Well, that was a lot different, and I'll tell you why. Neil Young's mother lived in New Smyrna Beach [FL], and she was on her deathbed. So he came to New Smyrna Beach, which is 15 miles south of Daytona. Not much of a tourist area – it's kind of an area for locals. Very nice, though, beautiful, on the ocean.
Anyway, his mom's dying, and he's here for that – so he's not in the greatest of moods – and the place wasn't that big, either. He was sitting right in front of me, about 15 feet away. This time, I didn't have to ask what was going on, 'cause he was right there, and no one was bothering him. So he was just like another dude sitting at the club, and I sat the whole break with him.
He told me what was going on, and by golly, he sat through whole 'nother set! He got up to leave, right as we finished the second set – and that's when he said, “You know, I gotta tell you, I've never sat and listened to another band play this long.” And I was like, “Wow! That's a great thing to say.”
CR: That almost made you feel like a made guy, didn't it? High praise, indeed.
JW [laughs}: Yeah, it was. It really was, yeah.
OUT OF THE '70s (INTO THE '80s)
CR: And then, of course, you end up having to leave Southwest Michigan, because the drinking age goes up, disco comes in – you're kind of getting hit from all directions, basically...
JW: Of course, Michigan was part of the Rust Belt. It was really slowing down, and Florida was just starting its real boom time, particularly Orlando. Orlando went from a town of 40,000 people to what it is today, two million people. So it's booming, this place is dying, and the drinking age is still 18 down there. We had instantaneous gigs, where we'd just pack up and go. So we did.
THE WHITE SUMMER REUNION CONCERT AT CZAR'S
(By James Watkins)
The White Summer band will come together to perform a reunion concert at Czar's, downtown St Joseph, Michigan, November 25 at 10:00pm. White Summer has produced five albums of original material, but they are most famous for their thousands of live appearances that never fail to generate tremendous excitement and large crowds. The many hardcore fans of the band are affectionately called "Whiteheads," and some have been known to travel 1,000 miles to see White Summer.
The story of the White Summer band begins in 1973. The group was formed as a power trio of eighteen-year-olds from Benton Harbor: Jim Watkins (drums and vocals); Rick Lowe (guitar and vocals); and David Wheeler (bass guitar). The boys had been close friends since the sixth grade, when they attended Pearl School together. Early influences included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, and home-state favorites Grand Funk Railroad. The name of the band comes from a Mayan Indian term, the White Summer plateau, which means the highest level of human consciousness.
The band's first bar gig was at Babe's Lounge. They also put on many shows at high school dances, outdoor festivals, and nightclubs. White Summer performed many times at the old Shadowland Ballroom, and were one of the last bands to play that hallowed venue.
White Summer released their first album in January, 1976 -- the White Album. WIRX played the record in its entirety several times. Les Paul was in the control room during one of the recording sessions at Sound Machine Studios in Kalamazoo and praised the boys' sound.
White Summer was the last band to ever play the House of David Beer Gardens. In 1977, the band performed on that fabled stage in front of 5,000 fans as the opening act for Blood, Sweat and Tears. When the crowd began chanting "White Summer" during a long instrumental song by BS&T, singer David Clayton Thomas marched off the stage in anger. It would be twenty minutes before he could be coaxed into continuing the concert.
In the mid-1970s, there were perhaps fifty clubs that featured live rock bands in Berrien County. But the drinking age in Michigan was raised from 18 to 21, and that combined with the Disco fad killed the live music scene. In 1979, White Summer moved to Ann Arbor before relocating to Florida one year later.
White Summer went on to become one of the top rock acts in Florida. The group traveled around in its signature big white bus and by the end of the 1980s became famous for its classic rock shows, especially in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and in the Florida Keys. By the end of that decade, White Summer featured a repertoire of 1,000 songs and was known as the "All Request Band," meaning the audience was challenged to try to "stump the band."
White Summer opened for many top rock acts, from the Buckinghams to Black Oak Arkansas. The band developed a reputation as a "Musician's Band"—more musicians would come to see them perform than any other group. Eric Clapton caught a set at Sloppy Joe's in Key West and exclaimed, "This is the best band I have ever seen in a bar!" Neil Young saw two sets in New Smyrna Beach and said, "This is the longest I ever sat and listened to a band."
White Summer performed at Walt Disney World and played for two months at the Hard Rock Cafe in Cancun, Mexico. In 1990, White Summer won a Jammy Award as "Best Classic Rock Band," while Jim Watkins won the award for "Best Classic Rock Vocalist." In 1991, White Summer appeared in front of its biggest crowd ever—25,000 souls—at the Indian River Music festival with Don Henley, Michael McDonald, and Arlo Guthrie. A major music magazine called White Summer's set "the highlight of the day."
White Summer never neglected its Michigan roots. The band did a two year tour of its home state in the 1980s that covered a Michigan map with pins for the cities they had played. Three times the group returned to Southwest Michigan. One of their most memorable performances came at the 1988 Venetian Festival when they played in front of 5,000 people directly on Silver Beach.
In 1984 White Summer returned to play at Chief's Bar in Millburg. That gig started out as a joke as the drummer's sister lived in Millburg and used to dare him to bring White Summer to Millburg. Chief's built an addition for White Summer to accommodate its fans. The group became the house band at the Ramada Inn in Benton Harbor for six months in 1987, during which time it occupied one entire floor of the hotel—24 rooms. In 1989, White Summer lived and played at the Sweet Cherry Resort for six months.
The 1982 White Summer Red Album drew the attention of Warner Brothers. During negotiations for a record contract, one of the three band members—Danny Misch from Chesterton, Indiana—suddenly left the band for personal reasons. That was the end of that.
In 1984, White Summer recorded the Dreams Come True album in Detroit at the old Motown Studios. That record received airplay on over 100 radio stations. The band was nearly signed by United Artists, but the deal was squelched at the last minute by a top executive who didn't like the way the band looked. He said, "If I close my eyes, White Summer sounds as good as any band in the world." This was during the big-hair-band days. Video killed the radio star.
The last White Summer album was recorded in 1990 at the Platinum Post Studios in Orlando, in between sessions by Al Di Meola and Judas Priest. There are many videos of White Summer's music on YouTube but one has to be careful as two other groups are on YouTube that have stolen the name. Both are young kids, one group from Canada and one from Australia. They have been asked to cease and desist using the name "White Summer" but have ignored these requests.
White Summer has featured many different lineups over the years. The constants have been drummer/singer Jim Watkins (since 1973) and virtuoso guitarist Jimmy Schrader (since 1976). Two former members, Jeff Aldrich and Ron Rutkowski, are deceased.
Jimmy Schrader was born sightless in Benton Harbor and attended the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing. Jim Watkins needed a guitar player in 1976 and a fellow musician told him about Schrader. He said, "I know a fantastic guitar player but he is having a hard time finding a band. He was born blind, and refuses to use a cane or a guide dog. So, if you hire him, you will have to lead him around everywhere you want to go and everywhere he needs to go." Watkins went to hear Schrader play his 1957 Fender Stratocaster by himself in his basement through a double-stacked 200 watt Marshall—turned wide open (on 10). It was as loud as a freight train. Within one minute Watkins knew that Schrader was his man.
For a long time, Jimmy Schrader was simply called "the blind man" by rock music fans, and White Summer "the band with the blind guitar player." But by the mid-1980s, Schrader had been given a new appellation: The King -- as in the king of guitar. He is truly the star of the show and a world-class guitarist.
For five years in the 1980s, bass player Randy Brown from Saginaw toured with White Summer. He is such a powerful player that his nickname is "The Jimmy Schrader of Bass Players." No higher compliment could be given. Brown had previously toured the world as a trumpet player in a jazz-rock group.
White Summer disbanded after 1991. Jim Watkins retired from the music business and got a real job. Today he writes internet magazine articles on HubPages. Jimmy Schrader never stopped playing and today is in a top-notch Florida band called Bad Mannerz. Randy Brown lives in Vero Beach, Florida, and plays in his church and occasionally in other venues.
Since 1991, the White Summer band has come together every other year to do a one-night-only Reunion Concert, either in Florida or in Michigan. The lineup for these shows is always Jim Watkins, Jimmy Schrader, and Randy Brown. Adam Watkins—Jim's son—plays a set on the drums while Jim goes out front to sing. The last such show enthralled a jam-packed house at Czar's in June, 2009. The "Whiteheads" are getting ready for the sets that will be all classic rock—Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top, Robin Trower, Montrose, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, and Stevie Ray Vaughn (and others). A White Summer show is always a party. Be there!
Band reunions are dicey propositions, as any music fanatic is keenly aware. The problem, as I joke, is being asked to go home again...when you were 16, and you didn't have to face any of life's ugly little responsibilities yet...only some yo-yo's changed all the locks, and you can't get back in! So goes life in the bigtime rock 'n' roll technocracy.
Thankfully, local bands have a different dynamic, one that's focused around the joys of playing those favorite songs one more time – 'cause there sure as hell isn't any big money changing hands, right? Still, had luck and timing run their course just a little differently, many of these outfits could have crossed the finish line to everlasting fame 'n' fortune.
At least, that's how things panned out for White Summer, who roared out of Benton Harbor in 1973, and built a formidable live following – built around the pyrotechnics of blind guitarist Jimmy Schrader, and the deft drumming of Jimmy Watkins – who remained the band's mainstays during its original run. Along the way, White Summer recorded four platters of original material – beginning with WHITE ALBUM (1976) – and garnered praise from the likes of Eric Clapton, and Neil Young.
In many ways, White Summer's story reads like a movie, but not one that attracted support from management companies and major labels. Weary of that same-old, same-old phenomenon, White Summer called it quits in 1991. Inevitably, though, the boys couldn't stay away forever, and began to regroup with bassist Randy Brown, who toured for five years with the band during the 1980s.
The shows happen in Michigan, or Florida – which Brown and Schrader now call home – and have typically gone off about every other year, which is how I found myself catching White Summer's latest get-together at Czar's 505, in downtown St. Joseph.
Due to various boring tasks that invariably commandeer my attention, I don't make it down until the second set – but it's not too hard to figure out what's happening, as Dave Carlock makes clear to me outside, on the sidewalk: “Do you hear that? Jimmy Schrader's just killing it!”
Indeed, he is: I can hear those gut-wrenching strains of feedback and sustain floating off the main floor, up the stairs and outside, just long enough to hang in the air, and ring out into the night. On the main floor, the traffic is packed, as Watkins fronts the band – while his son, Adam, deputizes on the drumkit, something that he'll periodically do throughout the night.
The song happens to be a Doors classic, “Roadhouse Blues,” and the elder Watkins doesn't miss the opportunity to lead the crowd through a tradeoff on those telling lines in the last verse, the snapshot that Jim Morrison saw fit to offer his fans back in 1970: “Wellll, I woke up this morning, and I...”
Back comes the answer: “GOT MYSELF A BEER-AH!”
“Well, I woke up this morning, and I...”
“GOT MYSELF A BEER-AH!”
One, two, three, four: “Well, the future's uncertain, and...”
“...THE END IS ALWAYS NEAR-AH!”
All in all, not a bad start for my night, although my ears are taking a real old- fashioned mauling – because I've staked out a spot on stage right, under one of the speakers. However, when you've got a standing room only crowd, you hug that particular corner... because it may not be there when you get back.
I pray that the Feedback Gods will be kind on this occasion, and concentrate on click-click-clickin' away, as the band winds through its second, then third set, which focuses heavily on Hendrix territory. Schrader naturally gets lots of room to stretch out on well-worn showcases as “Red House” (for which the crowd sits down, because it's not a danceable number, per se), “The Star-Spangled Banner” – segueing into “Purple Haze,” Woodstock-style, of course – and “Fire,” with Randy Brown's fingers running nimbly underneath all the fretboard fireworks.
But that's half the fun, naturally: however much these songs got pounded into the ground via too many Classic Rock stations, whose formats carry the stink of mothballs and long-ago-discarded Rolodexes left by the umpteen different program directors who passed through their portals...
...White Summer brings them alive with a conviction that's impressive, as if they'd written these well-known numbers themselves. That's half the battle of interpretation, right? Close your eyes, and you can hear what kept the folks coming back to all those countless holes-in-the-walls, fourscore and so many nights ago.
We also get one-off raids of nuggets from ZZ Top, and Stevie Ray Vaughan (“Cold Shot”), and – to round out the night – Billy Idol's 1982 mega-smash, “White Wedding...y'know, the song that effectively punched his ticket out to Beverly Hills, generatin' oodles of cash 'n' cover versions that seemed a long way off to a certain W. Broad, back in certifiably fallin' apart late '70s-punk-era Swinging London...
...only tonight, the song is provisionally re-dubbed “White Summer,” as in: “It's a nice day for, a...WHITE SUMMER!” The bodies are back in force on the floor, roaring their full-throated approval, especially when they get to the punchline: “Well, it's a nice day to...STAAAAART AGAINNNNN!”
Last call is creeping around the bend as usual, but everybody seems bound 'n' determined to wring one last chord or two out of the boys onstage before the night slips out the back door..as it should be, eh? Here's hoping that we don't wait long till the next time, and that the Feedback Gods are kind to me once more. Time will tell.
Karen "Big Red" Roland/Varpa (12/19/11)
Nice article wrote describing White Summer and the fans love for White Summer. I am a "White Head" and follower of W.S. Being friends and co-worker of W.S. for over 27 years, would like to add that W.S. has made many business owners proud that they hired them for entertainment. Jimmy Watkins and "The King" James Schrader could let a few friends know they are playing and by word of mouth the whole community would know in a matter of days. Where ever they played they had dedicated followers. The followers are not only music lovers but true believers in the band. November 25th's show proved it to me. Myself a booking agent am a true follower. I came over 500 miles to see them. The aura that is created by "White Summer" and the fans is fabulous. Many of the "Whiteheads" have been friends for over 30 years. Reunion is definately for not only the band but for the followers. Thanks for giving the guys and the readers the "TRUTH" Chairman Ralph. Much love from The Great White North of Minneapolis, MN. Peace Love and Groove.
Good point. I hadn't tohuhgt about it quite that way. :-)