February 13th, 2016
South Shore Room, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, NV

Of the legacy acts still working the circuit, Grand Funk Railroad is one of the few worth seeing. They are vibrant, energetic and true to the original band. Founding members Don Brewer (drums) and Mel Schacher (bass), both in their mid-sixties, are the engine behind the enduring war horse. Joined by vocalist Max Carl (38 Special), guitarist Bruce Kulick (Kiss) and keyboardist Tim Cashion (Bob Seger, Robert Palmer), the group remains true to their early roots in electric blues and R&B Soul. Mark Farner, the band’s original vocalist stepped away from the group after a brief reunion in 1998. During their heyday in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Grand Funk Railroad were the hometown heroes of Flint, Michigan selling millions of records and packing arenas. Still popular today, the current line up has been in place since the GFR brand was re-established in 2005. According to their website, they play 40+ shows a year selling out many halls including the South Shore Room at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, NV, February 13th, 2016.

Known as ‘The American Band” (after their 1973 gold album of the same name) GFR took full advantage of their patriotic status at Lake Tahoe. An American flag was prominently displayed on stage and a tribute was made to US military troops. A large band logo was spotlighted in red, white, and blue on the bass drum – and, as the band burst onto the stage, the crowd jumped to their feet in a wave of appreciation. Grand Funk kicked off the show with new(ish) song “Bottle Rocket”, a hip shakin’ number that was written by the group in 2012. The immediate reaction from the crowd proved that fans were eager and receptive to new and vital songwriting from the group. Without missing a beat, the organ strains of “Rock ‘n Roll Soul” hummed from the speaker cabinets. Max Carl easily stepped into his role as frontman rallying the crowd through the chorus. Bass and drums then fused together as the group moved into the heart-pounding beat of “Footstompin’ Music” which stretched out as an extended jam from the original album closer to 1971’s Survival.

After some brief banter with the audience, Carl pointed to keyboardist Tim Cashion who filled the air of the showroom with a series of cosmic strains that reached back to 1974 and the 3D epic “Shinin’ On”. Easily one of the best tracks ever penned by the group, it became magical in the live setting. Sung by drummer Don Brewer, the lyrics, “We are winners and losers, bedfellow choosers” were a catalyst for many of a simpler time, then as if to invite all to join the voyage, came the baritone strains, “We are space-age sailors, all had our failure / Now everybody gonna' shine”. Kulick’s guitar tone was fuzzy and psychedelic while Carl injected just enough rhythm through his Fender to keep the song entrenched in heavy while still remaining poignant. Carol King cover “The Loco-Motion” was next on the dock and had the congregation of the electric church off their pews and dancing in the aisles. The song was this reviewer’s first single bought at the tender age of eleven when the chords of rock and roll were weaving their way deep into the fabric of my DNA.

Taking full advantage of Max Carl’s late-eighties stint with 38 Special came the emotional ballad “Second Chance”. Nowhere else in the set was the beauty of Carl’s AOR voice so clearly showcased. It not only gave the singer a spotlight opportunity but gave the show a nice refrain, which was exactly what was needed as Brewer took over with a powerful drum solo. Unlike many a tedious drum solo, Brewer kept his rhythmic, fun and melodically fluid setting up the tribal punch of “Lightning and Thunder”. All band members positioned themselves on percussion instruments (Kulick manned the tambourine) as Carl recited a story of seduction and natural instinct. Kulick then strapped on his white Les Paul for a stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” while Brewer waved the American flag stretching over the audience. Kulick’s approach to the anthem had similarities to Hendrix’s Woodstock performance with massive distortion and deafening feedback.

The Animals cover, “Inside Looking Out”, recorded by GFR for their 1969 sophomore “red” album, was a thunderous segue toward the heavier side of the group. The marijuana references in the lyrics still remain, changing the original's “rebirth” to “reefer” and “canvas bags” to “nickel bags”, however the California skiers in the audience didn’t seem to mind. As an institution, “Some Kind of Wonderful” (the Soul Brothers Six cover that gave GFR their third Top Ten hit) made its appearance in the set. The song’s stick-like-glue chorus had the audience singing it long after the concert ended. But not before an incredible extended version of “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home)” and the home run swing of “We’re An American Band.” The song has had massive staying power. Originally producer by Todd Rundgren and sung (and written) by Don Brewer it still stands as the quintessential road tale of a band’s nocturnal escapades. It was GFR’s biggest hit and, for 1973, was the top-selling song around the world. Tonight, it was the perfect way to end the evening.

*Special thanks to Anne Leighton publicity. All photos by Alex Solca.

Website: Grand Funk Railroad