Powertrane's Scott Morgan and Robert Gillespie have seen it all, but they're not ready to give up the ghost just yet
Anybody with some interest in the Detroit rock 'n' roll scene of the '60s and '70s is probably familiar with the name Scott Morgan. After forging his reputation as lead singer with garage rock prototypes the Rationals (who covered Otis Redding's "Respect" before Aretha did) in the mid-'60s, Morgan hooked up with MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith to form the now-legendary Sonic's Rendezvous Band in the late '70s. More recently, he's recorded with Nicke Royale of Swedish Detroit-influenced rockers the Hellacopters to create two different bands — the Solution and the Hydromatics.
Despite having his hands in so many different projects, Morgan founded Powertrane with former Motor City Rockers, Mitch Ryder and Rob Tyner Band (aka the New MC5) guitarist Robert Gillespie at the end of the last decade. The plan here was to simply get out there and play in Detroit and Morgan's Ann Arbor hometown.
Metro Times recently ventured to Ann Arbor to meet up with Morgan, after first picking up Gillespie at his Pleasant Ridge home. Gillespie has one of those "seasoned musician" basements that is a genuine pleasure to explore. Littered with countless pieces of vinyl, cassettes and CDs — not to mention numerous concert fliers and guitars decorating the walls and a magnificent Dennis Rodman doll sitting in a corner — the room is more a museum than a basement.
The slender, power-shagged guitarist is keen to point out during our drive that Powertrane is very much a band and not just another Scott Morgan project. After arriving in Ann Arbor and collecting Morgan, we make our way to the Blind Pig to talk. It's interesting to observe the strong chemistry between the two men. In fact, Morgan says collaboration between them was inevitable since they first crossed paths on the well-worn Detroit circuit.
"Robert was playing in the Motor City Rockers with [drummer] Jimmy Marinos from the Romantics in the very early '90s. Everyone had been telling me that he's the best guitar player in town. I already knew he played with Mitch Ryder for about 20 years, and our bands would play a lot of shows together. So we thought about working together for a while before we did. As a singer, I like writing lyrics because I can put more believability into it. Robert writes really good music. So it just made sense. It's sorta like, say, Ron Wood and Keith Richards."
Gillespie picks up the story: "We started working together in the late '90s. First, we started just writing together and then we started rehearsing at a space in Ann Arbor. We finally did our first show on St. Patrick's Day, 2001, at the Magic Bag with the Dollrods. We had another bass player who did just that one gig with us. Chris Taylor — who's a guitar player — joined us soon afterwards and he switched to bass. We've had a few drummers. [Shades of Spinal Tap!] Our newest drummer is Alex King, who had quite a pedigree. His grandfather was a jazz pianist. His father was a keyboard player, and his uncle was Rob King who played in Destroy All Monsters with Michael Davis, Ron Asheton and Niagara."
Each of Morgan's various projects has had a distinguishable sound — usually rooted close to R&B — and he's especially keen to point out what makes Powertrane so different: "It's a bit of everything — Chicago blues, Detroit high-energy rock 'n' roll, some rhythm 'n' blues, just everything," Morgan says. "We weren't thinking in those specific terms when we started Powertrane. It wasn't a project like the Hydromatics or the Solution. The idea behind the Hydromatics was to do Sonic's Rendezvous Band material, whereas the Solution was formed to do soul music. It was specifically laid down on paper. But we started Powertrane solely just to have a Detroit rock band. There was no preconceived idea other than to create high-energy, bombastic rock 'n' roll. And I think that term of 'Detroit high-energy rock 'n' roll' has stuck pretty well over the years. You immediately think of the MC5, the Stooges, the Romantics, Sonic's Rendezvous Band, Mitch Ryder, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper and Ted."
Because of Morgan and Gillespie's lineage, it's inevitable that Powertrane audiences will shout out requests for songs recorded by their previous bands — the Sonic's Rendezvous Band's classic "City Slang" is an obvious example. But Gillespie appreciates that people respect the two musicians' past.
"We've accepted that people want to hear 'City Slang,'" he says. "The song 'Tabo' — that's one that [late MC5 singer, songwriter and co-founder] Rob Tyner and I wrote together. People yell for that song all the time too. It's our past and it was a good past. We're both proud of it.
The guitarist continues to reminisce on Tyner. "Rob was a big talent and a great guy. We unfortunately had a falling out at the end. I left him to join the Torpedoes [a blues- and punk-influenced rock 'n' roll band featuring Johnny Angelos of the Amboy Dukes, a vocalist Gillespie describes as "like Rod Stewart, only better"] because I didn't want to milk the MC5 thing any longer. I just didn't want to do that anymore. And he was pissed with me and he held that all the way to his grave. We weren't speaking at the end there and that still hurts me to this day. [Stooges and Destroy All Monsters guitarist] Ron Asheton was angry at Rob for going out and playing as 'the new MC5,' but Rob thought that he could do it." He pauses. "I was so much younger then."
Morgan talks of audience expectations as it relates to his history. "We do try to put the focus on Powertrane, but that's a little difficult because people do expect me to do stuff from my past. Wayne [Kramer] was the first guy I met [from the MC5], and he was always a real talker. We were thinking of starting a band together when the Five and the Rationals had both broken up. But Wayne was getting locked up [Kramer was sent to prison on a drug trafficking charge in the mid-'70s], so he had a good reason not to do it." Morgan chuckles. "But he was real honest about it and real helpful. He suggested that I talk to Fred [Smith], so I did and we started hanging out. That turned into the Sonic's Rendezvous Band, and that, of course, ended up being something really memorable."
With so much talk of Detroit's gloried past, the unavoidable question would be, "Is the present is a healthy time for Detroit rock 'n' roll?" Morgan immediately answers that it's the same as it's always been, a statement not to be taken lightly coming from a guy who has seen most of it. "There are some bands that are good and some that are not so good," he says, matter-of-factly. "There's some real talent here. And, of course, you've got the young ones everybody knows — Jack White, Kid Rock, Eminem. And there are still the old people like Bob Seger, the Stooges, us ..."
When challenged with the idea that rock 'n' roll is a kid's game, Gillespie bites immediately. "The Rolling Stones are all 10 years older than us, so shut the fuck up, OK?"
Morgan's response is more considered: "The touring part is a kid's game because it's real hard. We can't party anymore. Even Iggy has half a glass of wine, half a cigarette and he's done. But he still puts on a hell of a show. But the touring is hard. Everybody just wants to go home and sleep in their own bed."
Regardless, Powertrane continues to play all over metro Detroit and beyond, despite that Morgan will turn 60 next year.
When considering his band's future, Morgan says he has no plans to stop. "What I would like to do is put a single out," he says. "I like singles as a concept. I like to think the U.S. is still a good place to play. So I'd like to play more here, perhaps venture down South. ..."
Like fine wines, Scott Morgan and Robert Gillespie improve with age, so it's good to know that retirement is a long way down on their personal agendas.
Friday, Sept. 19 at the Lager House, 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668.Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]