- Rough riders: The James Gang, circa 1970.
After playing at a Michael Stanley tribute concert held at the Rock Hall late last year, guitarist Joe Walsh, bassist Dale Peters, and drummer Jim Fox had dinner at Century, the snazzy Ritz-Carlton restaurant in downtown Cleveland. The three core members of the James Gang, they played together from 1968-71 and had talked about old times before. But this time, they decided to give it another go.
This power trio, which opened for the Who on a tour of Europe three decades ago, was a local sensation during its heyday, performing regularly at J.B.'s in Kent and Otto's Grotto in the old Statler Hilton in downtown Cleveland. But since 1971, when Walsh formed Barnstorm on his way to becoming a solo star and a member of the Eagles, Peters and Fox have kept relatively low profiles. Peters has remained in the music business, while Fox, who lives in Kirtland Hills, collects license plates. But the music has never been far from the collective mind of a threesome that ranked in its heyday with such other classic-rock templates as the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream.
"To me, it feels like a natural progression," Fox says of the reunion. "It's something we've talked about endlessly, at least for the past 10, 15 years. I think we're sort of operating on a matter of feel, and it feels good right now, so we're going at it."
During the past dozen years, this lineup has performed on several occasions: at a Clinton rally at the CSU Convocation Center in 1996, on a few episodes of the Drew Carey Show, and, last fall, in a jam session in the Flats with Glenn Schwartz, an original Gang guitarist. But the February 22 date at the Rock Hall and the February 24 and 25 dates at the Allen Theatre will be the Gang's first formal concerts in nearly 25 years.
This lineup is "the way I view the band," says Fox. "The music made it special. All I can tell you is it was the most enjoyable time for me musically; though the early times, before we recorded, were every bit as interesting and enjoyable. Bands get good when they play a lot, and we were playing five, six nights a week -- locally three nights a week at J.B.'s and weekends wherever we could."
Fox, who grew up in Cleveland Heights, originally drummed for the Outsiders on their first tour in 1966 and founded the James Gang that fall, with Tom Kriss on bass and Schwartz on guitar. In 1967, that lineup recorded some instrumental singles, including "Long Hair Soulful," a track written by Capitol Records promo man Roger Karshner and trumpet-star-to-be Chuck Mangione. Based on the work of artist Paul Klee, "Long Hair Soulful" was released under the name "Bhagavad Gita"; it's one of the rarest Gang items. When Schwartz left for Pacific Gas & Electric in 1968, Walsh -- who had been making waves around Kent State University with his band the Measles -- stepped in. The Gang was signed to ABC by Bill Szymczyk in 1968, when Walsh's fiery playing riveted his attention at Grotto shows. In 1969, Yer Album, still with Kriss on bass, was released, featuring the blend of hard rock, country lilt, and wackiness that characterized the Gang's best product.
The following year, Peters replaced Kriss and the Gang released Rides Again, an album that featured the great hard-rock "Funk 49," the dreamy "Asshtonpark," and the bucolic "Tend Your Garden." The boys look tough on the cover -- they're wearing shades, they're on motorcycles, and they're in command. That May 4, Walsh, a Wichita, Kansas native who now lives in Los Angeles, saw his classmates gunned down by the Ohio National Guard. The era of album-oriented rock and underground radio -- when FM pioneers WMMS and WNCR broke the grip of AM giants WIXY and WHK -- had begun.
In 1971, after releasing Thirds, that version of the James Gang called it quits; Walsh formed Barnstorm with Canton's Joe Vitale (formerly of Chylds) on drums and Kenny Passarelli on bass, releasing its debut in 1972. Meanwhile, Fox and Peters soldiered on, issuing decent live discs and intermittently interesting studio efforts. Their work with Tommy Bolin, particularly on the 1974 Atco release "Miami," is good, but Bolin left the Gang for Deep Purple, and its work with guitarists Domenic Troiano and Richard Shack, and vocalists Roy Kenner and Bubba Keith, was far more generic. The Gang ultimately called it quits in late 1976.
"The true band experience is a rare thing today," says Fox. "There aren't many left. It's the democracy, the give-and-take to playing in a band, the wonderful feeling that comes from a collaborative effort. There's a tremendous feeling, being behind a set of drums and pushing a certain segment of a song to a higher level, and I'm sure it's the same for each instrument. It's a musical experience, apart from an entertainment experience."
"We've been waiting a long time to do this," says Peters, a Chagrin Falls resident who owns a production company. The former director of remote recording for Westwood One, formerly the largest radio syndicate in the world, Peters worked 350 live shows in five years, including every Farm Aid, the MTV Spring Breaks, and all the MTV "Unplugged" sessions. Although he played on Eric Carmen's last album, he's been out of the limelight almost as much as Fox. Only Walsh has retained his image and marketability, as an Eagle and as a producer, working with the likes of Dan Fogelberg, Spirit's Jay Ferguson, and Ringo Starr. Hits such as "Life's Been Good" and the indelible "Rocky Mountain Way" have helped.
"Joe had told me a long time ago he wanted to do something with me," says Rock Hall program director David Spero. "After he did an 'Evening With' at the Hall a few years ago, he expressed interest in something more. So we kicked around dates and came up with February 22, and at the time the plan was to come and do this Hall of Fame thing. They were very adamant about doing it upstairs, not on the main floor."
After that, Spero told the band of "thousands and thousands of requests [to perform], so we thought maybe we could do something else." Because the 2,500-seat Allen Theatre was available for the weekend, the Gang agreed to perform benefits for the Rock Hall there. The first Allen show sold out fast.
"We haven't written anything new," Peters says. "But I think we'll play some stuff we've never played before, like 'Midnight Man' and some other surprises."
"I want the interplay more than anything else," Fox says. "It's the thrill. It sounds sappy, but it's the camaraderie of it all. We remember the feeling that when we got together we played some exceptional music, and we are anxious to get together to try to do that again."