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RUTLEDGE: Aging rock stars know their craft and their crowd

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Our friends Paul and Ramona invited Sharon and me to see Grand Funk Railroad last weekend at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville, Tenn. Another couple was supposed to go, but they canceled at the last minute citing fatigue from moving furniture.

We had a fantastic time, but the other couple should have gone. Rock concerts involving 1970s arena bands are not the physically taxing events they once were.

No 10-minute stomping, clapping, or screaming, for instance, to bring the band back to the stage for an encore. No breathing of heavy smoke from tobacco and other leafy substances. There was not even a long wait for the restrooms.

After its late-’60s beginnings in Flint, Michigan, Grand Funk Railroad was soon filling arenas all over the country. The band sold out Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles did — which might explain why I never saw them in Johnson City during the ’70s.

Paul and I were 13 in late 1974, when Freedom Hall Civic Center began hosting rock concerts. In October and November of that year, we saw REO Speedwagon with the J. Geils Band, Mountain with Atlanta Rhythm Section, and Foghat with Black Oak Arkansas.

I dare say there was not a white-headed person in any of those crowds back then. From the balcony at this most recent show, the crowd was practically a sea of white—jumping and jiving to songs such as “The Loco-Motion,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Walk Like A Man,” and “I’m Your Captain.”

All of those hits came out before Grand Funk’s iconic album, “We’re An American Band,” which my older sister, Martha, brought home in 1973. Oh, the times we had jamming to that classic album and so many others in the basement on Montclair Drive.

The vinyl for that record is memorable because it was transparent gold rather than the standard black. Although the album gave the band most of its staying power, our copy lasted only about three years in our basement. Someone sailed it across the room like a Frisbee, straight into a metal pole.

Grand Funk now tours with two of its original three members: drummer Don Brewer and bass player Mel Schacher. The five-member lineup closed the show with a rousing rendition of “We’re An American Band.”

The build-up to the song had Brewer planting an American flag at the front of the stage before planting himself behind the drums and belting out the lead vocals with timeless quality:

“We’ll come into your town/we’ll help you party it down/we’re an American band.”

The entire crowd was on its feet and singing along, and what a fantastic way to end the show. When it was over, they took a bow, said goodbye, and were still walking off the stage when the lights and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” came on.

This band knows its crowd and the value of avoiding unnecessary back spasms. Absolutely no one protested the lack of an encore. It was as if the last chorus had been:

“We’ll come into your town/we’ll help you up and around/then let you sit back down.”

I will definitely go and hear them again—even if it requires turning up a hearing aid.

Contact Mark Rutledge at mrutledge@reflector.com or like him on Facebook at Mark Rutledge Columns.

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