Please excuse my giddiness that may show through in my columns at various times when I’m able to interview Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner or Jorma Kaukonen, or — in this case — Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad. Sure, these aging artists now are mostly doing festival dates with free shows and the like. To the folks a lot younger than me, they’re yesterday’s news.
For me, however, they were among the reasons I found music as a kid, picking out “Someone to Love” on acoustic guitar or “Into the Sun” and “I’m Your Captain” (badly, I might add) on my first electric guitar.
More than 30 years ago, getting to see a Grand Funk Railroad show at Barton Coliseum was huge. Friday night at the State Fairgrounds, they’ll be playing outside Barton for free, part of the State Fair’s series of free concerts.
“We’re doing 35 to 40 shows a year and having a good time,” says Brewer, the group’s longtime drummer.
We laughed about those early-1970s days, when Grand Funk was a Clyde Clifford “Beaker Street” staple late nights on KAAY-AM 1090, and then on the early underground FM stations, before FM took over the AM playlist.
Far removed from the groupie days, Brewer says the only girls who surround him today are his wife, two daughters and his sister.
Mark Farner, the group’s singer and guitar player during GFR’s heyday, has gone his own way following a reunion tour in 1995. It’s not an amicable parting, either, the way Brewer describes it. Farner still retains business interest in the band.
In Farner’s stead, Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher call on former .38 Special member Max Carl for singing. Bruce Kulick, who played with Meatloaf, Billy Squier, Michael Bolton and with KISS when that band “took off the makeup” for a while, is the guitarist. The keyboardist is Tim Cashion from Bob Seger’s band.
“It’s a great band,” Brewer said. “We focus on doing the hits and some new stuff. It’s a high-energy rock show.”
The Flint, Mich.-based Grand Funk Railroad survived many changes in music. Brewer and Farner were in The Pack playing ’60s rock when music began shifting to album-oriented, underground FM rock. Schacher, who had played with ? and the Mysterians, joined the new power-trio creation, Grand Funk Railroad (a play on the Grand Trunk and Western Railroad name and also “a gimmick” on using a word that sounded like the four-letter word for sex, Brewer said).
“Those were great days,” Brewer said. “That was some of the most creative music ever done, not just us, but by a lot of artists … Now, music is like a disposable piece of candy — chew it, swallow it and move on. When we came up, music was our life. You’d read the album covers, knew the entire band and who played what. Now, I’m not sure anybody cares … I don’t sense the same passion from music from the public as I did way back in the 1970s.”
By the mid-’70s, GFR had another decision to make, moving from seven-minute album tracks to hit radio, and successfully negotiated that change thanks to Todd Rundgren coming aboard as producer.
Brewer started out as a music fan and played in the high school band for an instructor “who only wanted to play waltzes and marches. I ragged him, when were we going to play some of that newfangled rock ’n’ roll. He said never, so I quit the high school band and started my own band.”
Now, his composition, “We’re an American Band,” has held its own for 30 years and is often played by high school and college bands on the football fields of America.
Brewer just laughs at the irony.