Stepping into Utica’s elegant Stanley Theater is like stepping back in time. Built in 1928 as one of the original movie houses, the look and feel of the building lends itself to nostalgia. Nostalgia was on the minds of many in attendance to catch the Marshall Tucker Band on its Long Hard Drive tour on St. Patrick’s Day.
The Marshall Tucker Band (MTB) is considered one of the forefathers of southern rock. Along with the Allman Brothers Band, Lynryd Skynyrd and the Outlaws, the band helped bring a unique mix of country music and rock to the mainstream with songs like, “Take the Highway” and “Can’t You See,” songs that are still in heavy rotation on classic rock radio. What makes MTB unique among its peers is the inclusion of a flute in its repertoire.
The 2016 edition of the band, fronted by lead singer Doug Gray, the sole remaining member of the band from its salad days, includes Pat Elwood on bass, Marcus Henderson on keyboards, flute, sax and vocals, B.B. Borden on drums, Chris Hicks on guitar and vocals and Rick Willis on guitars and vocals.
The set was slightly delayed as Gray explained that they hadn’t had a chance to do a sound check earlier in the day. That statement proved to be ominously prophetic. The house sound team, Fanelli Sound and Lighting, wasn’t running the boards Thursday night. Their experience mixing bands in the storied theater would have helped this show immensely. The resulting sound issues plagued MTB the remainder of the night.
Gray played the part of story teller throughout the show, often pausing between songs to give the audience a history lesson of how the song was written or particularly noteworthy performances of the song. The patient crowd indulged the singer, applauding during moments of Gray’s mention of his Vietnam service but there were times when he pleaded for their patience as he continued his story.
The band ran through a solid set of newer compositions alongside all its classic songs. The musicians in the band, particularly drummer Borden, were in top form despite the frustrating sound levels. In a moment of pure humble honesty, prior to the performance of “Take the Highway,” Gray admitted to those in attendance that he is no longer the man in the band to sing the song, before introducing Henderson to perform the band’s classic. After a solid flute intro, Henderson ripped into the vocals, making the song his own.
Opening for MTB was Utica-area bluesmen The Swamp Drivers. They brought a large following with them to the Stanley too. A quick glance around the audience showed as many Swamp Drivers shirts as MTB shirts. What sets the Swamp Drivers apart immediately is their odd collection of instruments, all homemade. Guitarist Terry Johnson performed much of the set using a guitar made from a Revereware frying pan, it also made an appearance later on in the hands of MTB guitarist, Hicks during the aforementioned performance of “Take the Highway.” Other unorthodox instruments making an appearance in their set included a one-string hoe, dubbed “Ida,” Phil Diehl’s garbage can drum set, and Tom Guidera’s hybrid cello-bass, a repurposed cello acquired without a neck that has a traditional bass guitar fretboard and headstock built into it.
The Swamp Drivers had the hometown fans dancing in their seats with a bluesy set of originals with sounds reminiscent of ZZ Top or George Throrogood.
The Swamp Drivers were chosen from many local entries to open the show. In an interview with WKTV, Johnson could barely contain his excitement. As a lifelong resident of the area who has always wanted to perform on the Stanley Theater stage and a long time fan of the Marshall Tucker Band, Johnson declared Thursday’s show a double check off his bucket list.
When the Swamp Drivers finished their set, the audience rose for a standing ovation, a dream come true for this time-tested band of New York State Blues Hall of Famers (The band was inducted in 2014).