The Spirit is High as The Average White Band Go Out to Haunt the Strip

Success to these guys means getting better, smoking Rothmans and a few extra patches on their denims. Barbara Charone reports from Los Angeles

LA IS A rock and roll haven. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Los Angeles lies somewhere along Sunset Boulevard, a cement connection between the rock star and everyday folk. Mammoth billboards peer down at passing motorists. This week Smokey Robinson, Carly Simon and Rick Wakeman are but a few of the famous cardboard faces that haunt the strip.

Round the corner from Tower Records, a less impressive marquee hangs sheepishly from Budget-Rent-A-Car, both a tribute to the mobile LA lifestyle and the glorified rock scene. “WELCOME TO LA – AWB and Rod Stewart.” Up the street sin and vice run up and down the corridors of the Continental Hyatt House, a home for stray rock stars that insists on advertising every visit. This week’s guest of honour is Elvin Bishop, his name sticks on their marquee in bright red letters just to let any desirables know he’s there.

Down the street from the Hyatt House, just off Sunset Boulevard, the Average White Band relax in the saner Sunset Marquis. Void of any bar or coffee shop, the hotel is far from a groupie paradise, the peace and quiet something that the AWB cherish dearly after being up, down and all round America for several months now while managing simultaneously to record a new album.

Coming off the success of both a number one album and single, the AWB are hot. Tonight’s show is at the Santa Monica Civic and the band are just a little bit worried about the state of Hamish Stuart’s vocal chords, feeling the blunt edge of the hectic touring strain. Two consecutive shows in San Francisco two days previous, playing to standing room only crowds at Bill Graham’s Winterland, have left the singer’s throat sore. But they have left his spirits high, as the AWB, the only white band on an all black bill, delivered one of the best sets of their career.

“You sure picked a good night to go,” the taxi-cab driver says wistfully, munching on greasy tacos aned refried beans while driving towards Winterland. “What a bill!”

What a bill indeed. Throughout their recent headlining tour, the band have made sure support acts are people their audience enjoy, complementing the R&B roots. Tonight’s lot couldn’t be better with the Chambers Brothers opening, Etta James sandwiched in the middle warming up the crowd for the Dundee Horns and the Glasgow Guitars, commonly known as the AWB.

Winterland is the perfect place for the band to play, the large main floor void of chairs is only an invitation to dance. And the crowd is geared to the rhythms, a lovely 50-50 ratio black to white, all united by funk. The ultimate test for the group, playing to people who know all about ‘roots’.

Backstage they’re carrying on as if it was London’s Marquee, proving that all success has changed are the clothes, stay-pressed trousers have replaced worn denims. “Where’s all the drugs,” Hamish screams jokingly, doing a handstand in an attempt to extinguish extra energy. Like the rest of the band, Hamish looks healthy and happy, relieved that the pressures of the last few months are over.

From the start of ‘Work To Do’ the main floor is up and dancing, fists raised and approving shouts of YEAH coming fast and furious, Alan Gorrie and Hamish moving as much as the audience, while the whole band instantly proves why Americans refuse to believe they are white. “Hell I couldn’t believe it,” Bobby Womack recently said in admiration. “I’d never heard white people sing like that. That guy’s got a black throat.”

Easily, the band have made the transition from clubs to concert halls, from support group to headliners, taking with them renewed professionalism and blacker vocals. Hamish has really come out of himself, both as a performer and singer, amazing the audience with very black notes. Onnie McIntyre has developed an individualistic rhythm guitar style that perfectly complements that incessant beat necessary to the core of their material. Alan Gorrie runs on enough energy for the whole hall, singing, playing bass or guitar and generally keeping things together.

While new drummer Steve Ferrone forces everyone to take notice. During his drum solo in ‘Pick Up The Pieces’, several soul brothers murmur in disbelief, “Man that cat’s BAAAD, he’s real BAAD. I seen a lot of drummers but this guy is DYNAMITE.” Hamish runs up and hugs him at the end of the solo.

The rhythms ooze off the dance floor, upstairs to the balcony, making the rafters bend. “We’d appreciate it if everyone would join in on the rhythms here,” Alan screams out, “we need some help.” But help was just about the last thing they needed. Winterland began to look like one enormous disco.

“It’s so dirty,” one female squeals ecstatically as they launch into ‘Cut The Cake’, their current single presently riding its way up American charts, serving as a taster for their forthcoming album. The Dundee Horns, Roger Ball and Malcolm Duncan, work out steaming sax solos.

Another new tune from the next album is a moody, sensual ballad, ‘If I Ever Loose This Heaven’ where Hamish proves his vocal prowess with a heartfelt vocal that makes young ladies crazee. With high pitched vocals, and sensitive back-up, the tune stands out.

Confused, a straight faced, sober teenage couple that obviously only came for the single hit ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ tap their feet occasionally and look awkward. “Is this still the same song,” the guy politely inquires as his girlfriend looks bored during ‘TLC’. This is the highlight of the whole show, a tune that gets reworked nightly. Hamish struts in mock imitation of a funky, duck walk. Alan dancing in glorious circles. Everybody on the dance floor screams out HEY.

Back at the hotel the band anxiously listen to a cassette of the new album, Cut The Cake, (due for British release May 16) that producer Arif Mardin has just brought with him from New York. Veteran Atlantic legendary producer, Mardin bubbles over with pride and enthusiasm for the group. A perfect working marriage, both the band and Mardin needed to find each other, helping strengthen identities.

Mardin looks fatherly, as if he could easily be a stand-in for various Godfather roles. “Deep down inside I knew they were good. It was the same feeling I had with the Rascals. But,” he grins, “I was surprised that an instrumental was a hit.”

Even more surprising was the dual feat of hitting with album and single, considering that their previous record company, MCA, had released them from their contract, thinking the group ‘a lost cause’.

“Success is just a question of making it easier to live offstage,” Alan says of the star studded situation. “Everybody’s got money in their pockets now.”

Time was when the band couldn’t afford to stay overnight in Newcastle, touring Britain in an endless cycle of late-night journeys back to London, then straight up North the next day. They have earned their success, determined not to let it change them.

“The thing that really surprises me,” said an Atlantic Records West Coast publicity man, “is that they don’t demand that star treatment that groups with lesser success insist on. They don’t even want limousines.”

“Aw I hate all that stuff,” Gorrie says, making an ugly face, “we’re big enough and secure enough not to let all that change us. I knew we wouldn’t change, everybody’s exactly the same. We’re not stars. What’s good about getting number one is that charts don’t matter from now on. It’s out of our system.

“The thing I realised which is unfortunate is that you can release a pile of shit and it can go up the chart. You can get away with it. People come up to us and say we can do anything now, but we couldn’t survive like that, we couldn’t live with ourselves. Give the world a definite assurance that we’re not gonna release any rubbish. EVER,” he says, getting emotional, “Besides, Arif would disassociate himself with us completely if we ever became star trippers.”

On and off stage, it’s apparent that success has given them the necessary confidence to be themselves, musically and personally. They play with a new ease, allowing themselves the freedom to deviate from accepted norms. They talk with more assurance, grateful for the chance at the big time, happy to be making music with each other.

“We’d been watching the charts,” Onnie recalls, “and it looked like Dylan’s album was going to number one. One night a guy from Atlantic rang up and said both album and single were definitely going to No 1. We were watching a film and we just sat there thinking. Half an hour later we went completely berserk, punching each other, running around doing handstands, ordering double scotches all round. Then we sat down and watched the movie again.”

Success, coupled with Robbie Mcintosh’s tragic death, has pulled the band even closer together. It’s just family now. At a celebration lunch the day after the LA show before they jet off to Hawaii for much needed rest and a few concerts, the generally festive, party-like atmosphere comes to an abrupt halt when they’re forced to decide, on delicate phrasing about a dedication to Robbie for the new album sleeve. A deeply felt silence hangs heavily over the table, instantly bringing them back to unpleasant realities. When Alan says “There’s a bit of Robbie in everything we do,” he is seriously sombre.

“We have to talk about it ’cause there’s some real fucking lies that have gone down in the papers that were horrible,” Alan says passionately referring to among other things, a distorted front page in an American newspaper. “There were really gross inadequacies. The only thing I want to talk to the papers about are the positive things, the things people have got to know. Robbie was an incredible musician and a fine person, not anything like a drug head,” he speaks in slow, emotional tones. “People in Britain know that but in America they think we do heavy drugs.”

But the band have emerged victorious on the other side proving to vindictive gossip makers that they really are good lads.

“On the positive side, the music has taken over stronger than ever. Everybody wants for each other’s good, there’s no selfishness in the band. There’s never been any ego problems and still aren’t. We all work a little harder to take the strain off. We have six people so we’re lucky. On this tour much of the load has fallen on Hamish, naturally everyone has stepped back a space. Without having to talk about it, we’ve all realised that the audience has to have a focal point. There’s got to be one person through who the whole thing comes.

“Hamish has really stepped into that now. He’s performing more. That’s the thing touring does for you. You can’t rehearse that, or work it out. We’ve never worked out a show ’cause it depends on the music. If you can do something extra while you’re playing, good and well. But the music should never miss a beat.”

Although Hamish has rightfully assumed subtle on stage control, Gorrie figures integrally in holding all the pieces together and making sure they fit. On an off-day in LA, the band maintain their heritage with an energetic game of football, a healthier way to release pent-up energies than more decadent endeavours. Five minutes into the game, Arif twists his ankle, forcing him out of action. Sitting on the bleachers. nursing his sore leg, he watches over them as if they were his sons. “Someone has to assume the responsibility,” Arif says of Gorrie’s goalkeeper position, “when no one else will.”

The AWB are self-sufficient and self-preserving, silently allowing each other to assume necessary roles within the group hierarchy. Alan Gorrie still calls chocolate mousse ‘pudding’. Hamish still wears tartan Tam O’Shanters. Roger Ball just has a few new patches on his beat-up denims. And they still smoke Rothmans. The only thing success has done for the AWB, is made them better.

© Barbara CharoneSounds, 10 May 1975

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