Scotland’s Average White Band was arguably the most ironically named group of all time. Its original band members were lead singer/guitarist/bassist Hamish Stuart, lead singer/bassist/guitarist Alan Gorrie, guitarist Onnie McIntyre, sax players Molly Duncan and Roger Ball, and drummer Robbie McIntosh, who tragically overdosed in 1974 and was replaced by Steve Ferrone.The soulful six-member band became famous after its funky J.B.’s-inspired, primarily instrumental “Pick Up the Pieces” was a U.S. pop smash in 1974. That song emanated from AWB’s self-titled second album, which topped the charts and also included a hot cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do” and the supremely funky “Person to Person.”
From 1974-1978, AWB was among the best and bestselling funk-R&B acts around. In addition to those already cited, their classic tracks included the funky “TLC,” “Cut the Cake,” one of my all-time favorite songs “School Boy Crush,” “Groovin’ the Night Away,” “Goin’ Home,” “I’m the One,” “The Message” and “Your Love Is a Miracle”; the soulful “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” “Queen of My Soul,” “Let’s Go Round Again” and “Watcha Gonna Do for Me,” which was later a hit for Chaka Khan; and ballads like “Cloudy” and “A Love of Your Own.” The peak of AWB’s power was the run of Arif Mardin-produced albums consisting of AWB, Cut the Cake, Soul Searching, Benny & Us and Warmer Communications — all of which sold gold or platinum.
The original lineup disbanded in 1983, but AWB has recorded and performed since 1989 with a lineup featuring Gorrie, McIntyre, Ball up to 1996, and a cast of hired hands. The other three guys have long independently built up their resumes doing session work and live support for superstars like Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, George Harrison, David Sanborn, Marvin Gaye, George Benson, Eric Clapton and many others. That went on for more than three decades until recently when Stuart, Duncan and Ferrone reunited to form a new group called the 360 Band, whose debut album has just been released.
The new material has a decidedly AWB flair to it, and the group has played several gigs that revisit several of the Average White Band chestnuts referenced above. It is so welcome to see and hear these funk-R&B masters getting back to their roots and especially collaborating once again.
If the new 360 material leans somewhat middle of the road and keeps things a tad too mellow, the fellas do manage to unleash some of their inner-funk demons on a couple of tracks. Regardless, stellar musicianship carries the day with a big sound powered by splashy horns (led by Duncan), tasty guitar licks (Stuart), spicy keyboards and pocket-locked drums (Ferrone). While the material sputters at times, the playing is impeccable and Stuart’s voice remains a warm, supple, soul-stirring instrument. The rest of the 360 Band and featured ace musicians on the record include: Steve Pearce (bass), Adam Phillips (guitar), Ross Stanley (keyboards), Andy Caine (guitar & vocals), Jim Watson (keyboards), Danny Cummings (percussion), Tom Walsh (trumpet and flugelhorn), Neil Sidwell (trombone) and Stuart’s daughter Emma (backing vocals).
As for the album’s nine cuts, Duncan and Ferrone each brought a song to the project with the rest made up of a handful of compositions from Stuart’s recent repertoire plus a couple of classic covers. As part of the record’s release Stuart has supplied detailed and insightful comments about each selection. Here are some excerpts followed by my notes in italics . . .
Mighty Fall Parts 1 & 2: Inspired by years of watching Muhammad Ali. The tenacity he displayed over the years in coming back from the draft issue, the taking away of his title and his freedom to pursue his career to then take back his crown not once but twice was inspirational. The “bitter end” referred to in the song was his penultimate fight, which should have been his last. It was such a sad occasion watching a hero fall so hard. The original version of Mighty Fall is now Part 1 and was co-written with arranger Richard Niles and appeared on his album Santa Rita. Listening months later and reflecting on the song I knew I’d only scratched the surface of a huge story so I began work on another version by stripping away chords and making it leaner and simpler musically, after which I tried to fill in the main events of this man’s phenomenal life; hence Part 2 was born, attempting to do justice to one of my heroes, this living legend that was Muhammad Ali.
This is a midtempo track checking in at 6:46. It features a lush arrangement and one of the album’s best guitar solos.
Put Your Hands to the Sky: In the weeks prior to recording we pulled the material together by batting songs back and forth between the three of us for mutual approval. Steve and I both liked this song from Molly and thought it had the right kind of groove and also that classic ‘Mol’ horn line to play/sing with. We felt the song needed a little more though and pulled it around in the studio writing the middle section in the process. The basic track was cut with just piano (Neil Sidwell), Mol doing his thing and happily for me I got to renew the old bass and drum partnership with Steve, which goes back to AWB classics like “Cut The Cake” and “Schoolboy Crush.” It was like riding a bike, like no time had passed and we clicked immediately. I love the way this song sits in the album creating a radical change of mood and tempo.
This is a slow funk groove that alternates with a passages featuring soulful harmonies. Includes a fine flugelhorn solo. Among the album’s finest moments.
Wordsworth: In the early Nineties I met a lovely man named Ben Wordsworth, descendent of the poet William Wordsworth whose work was part of my early education when The Daffodils was burned into my memory. What a perfect name for a poet. That triggered the thought of words not understood, unspoken or untruthful and how worthless words can be without truth. What are words worth? I loved the guitar motif that kicked the whole thing off musically for me and when the guys got a hold of it, hey! The rhythm section plus Neil’s horn chart kicked whole thing into life.
A mellow, flowing song with an opening reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” It’s quite catchy with a swinging chorus and features a sweet sax solo from Duncan.
Loose Change: Steve Ferrone had the title but no lyric and told me it was about when you take off your trousers to go to bed and the loose change spills out all over the floor, rolling under the bed. He then started to come up with more autobiographical stuff, which I worked with to pull into place and help fill in the blanks to get it to where he wanted to go. It became a story about the fragments of a relationship getting scattered like the loose change. Steve used to come up with choruses and bits of lyric and melody back in our AWB days but I think this one is really his first complete lyric. We kept things as loose and authentic as possible in the track and also with the overdubs of percussion and horns inside a very tight structure.
This one has a reggae flavor and a brassy quality. It includes Stuart’s daughter on background vocals.
Love and Learn: This song was written on Spanish Guitar and started with a little four-chord sequence I grooved around on till a melody appeared, then the sort of Spanish-flavored intro came along followed by the chorus. It’s been my experience that sometimes playing things live before recording causes you to reassess the component parts and change things for the better and this song was definitely a case in point. The horns in the second verse are really percussive and I love the way they work with the long legato background vocal line. I thought it needed a female sound to it so my daughter Emma added the backgrounds in Los Angeles.
This midtempo track throws some Latin-influenced elements into the mix, and adds one of Duncan’s finer sax solos.
Cherry Blossom Time: The lyric was the starting point on this song inspired by a Japanese friend who was feeling a bit lost and found and his little bit of redemption appeared in the beauty of the Cherry Blossoms. Since its completion, the song had become part of my regular repertoire but certain sections weren’t sitting quite right until Steve came up with a great drum pattern that really kicked it along and Steve Pearce solidified his part in the choruses. Things gelled from there and it really took off on the fade. The solo section is written so the players’ freedom of expression is all within the track and Adam and Ross embellish with great taste to the last note.
This one brings in a jazzy, bossa nova kind of rhythmic vibe. Excellent jazz guitar work and drumming.
Some Other Time: About a decade ago I was discovering the music of Bill Evans and found this song on a duo album he did with Tony Bennet in 1975. It immediately struck a chord with me lyrically and melodically. I transposed it to guitar as best I could with a little help from Jim Mullen in a couple of places. I still didn’t know how to perform it though, until I hit on the idea of marrying it to a groove I have always loved from a live performance by the late, very great Donny Hathaway of another lovely song “Sack Full of Dreams,” so it also became a little homage to Donny. I love the bittersweet tone of the lyric, which makes me think of great days/nights spent with family or friends and how they have to end but you wish they wouldn’t. Parting leaves this glow mixed with a tinge of sadness. A good reason to have this song on the album; a personal reunion of three people who made a lot of music and had a lot of good times together.
The standout old-school style ballad of the litter.
Too Hip: This song was kickstarted by hearing “Pick Up The Pieces” on a gardening program and wondering at the absurdity of the thought that if somebody had told us back in 1974 that just over 40 years after we created the tune it would still be getting played in so many different situations. The innocence of that moment as we were creating the songs that would change our lives and the organic nature of the way the music came together was what I was talking about. I remembered how it was living/playing and writing together what became the first AWB hit — then it morphed into being about how influential our original drummer Robbie McIntosh was in our development. The second verse covers the beginnings of our success; the story naturally led to the tragic event that turned the euphoria into horror and despair. It took me a long time to tell that and it’s impossible to really describe in song the events of that fateful night and its aftermath. The loss of Robbie was a tragedy for us, his family and the world of music. Even in the depths of our collective misery we never contemplated breaking up. We were very lucky to have Steve Ferrone join the band.
This 7:31-long track is a suite of sorts that vacillates from bouncy, easygoing funk to harmonized chorus-style passages. It has a nostalgic quality to it with prominent rhythm guitar and very nice sax work throughout. This is the funkiest 360 track and climaxes the record before its concluding curtain-call tune. “Too Hip” really cooks from the 3- to 4-minute mark and again from the 5:45 point onward, and the keyboard fills are quite dynamic.
Just for a Thrill: This song comes from one of the essential 1950s Ray Charles albums, The Genius of Ray Charles. Bass player Steve Pearce suggested I should do this one a few years ago and after some reticence to take on anything with such an indelible identity, I decided to go for it and messed around with the harmony a little, trying to make it a bit more my own. It has evolved over the years into something I love singing. It was an easy choice for the album saluting past, present and future and I knew that Steve Ferrone would eat this tune up. The solo on this one fell to Ross Stanley, who delivered big time.
Lullaby-like closer with a bluesy, standards type of motif. Ferrone works brushes on the snare to nice effect.
Aside from being an enjoyable record, it’s particularly reassuring to discover Stuart, Ferrone and Duncan can still bring their formidable music-making skills to the fore. Hopefully, they will continue along this path and further develop their rekindled chemistry with more 360 Band albums, and of course live performances too. In that way this set could serve as a warm-up for perhaps future works that work up a bit more of a funky sweat. If that never materializes this effort stands on its own merits as an assured collection of precisely executed R&B.