Preview by Joshua Maloni
It didn't take long for the original members of Firefall to find magic in the recording studio.
In the mid-1970s, “When Larry (Burnett) came out to join our band, in the first week of practice, we didn't have a name yet. We didn't have any gigs yet. But we knew that we wanted to aim high for where the band might be going. And in that first week of practice, we had 20 to 25 original songs of Rick (Roberts) and Larry's to work out,” frontman Jock Bartley said in an interview last week. “Unbelievable. That's unheard of. You know, when you form a band, you usually don't know what you're going to sound like; and you don't really have a lot of songs to play, unless they’re cover songs or something. We had 20 to 25 original songs from our first week of practice. That was about a month, or a month and a half before Michael Clarke came down and joined the band. … And the interesting thing about that was about four or five of those songs that we worked out in the first week of rehearsal ended up a year-and-a-half later being on our first album – songs like ‘Mexico’ and ‘Livin’ Ain’t Livin’ ’ and ‘It Doesn't Matter’ and ‘Cinderella.’
“Firefall has always been about songs – songs first. And all the players in Firefall, not only myself, the guitar player, but back in the day David Muse, the sax/flute guy; or Mark Andes, the bass player, from Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne; and Michael Clarke from the Byrds. … We geared all of the stuff we were playing individually to further the song and make the song better. That's really important, because nobody, no artist or band, has any success, really, unless you have a song or two or three or 10. It's the songs first.”
Almost 50 years later, Firefall’s philosophy is still “song first.”
When the band performs Saturday at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, the audience will discover “I have kept a real tight rein on the songs of Firefall that people come to hear, like ‘You Are the Woman,’ and ‘Just Remember I Love You’ and ‘Strange Way’ and ‘Cinderella,’ ” Bartley said. “By gosh, we're going to keep them like they're supposed to sound, and make them sound as much as we can like the records that people listen to, and the songs that get played on the radio – still.”
Bartley said it’s important to honor the original recordings.
“Over the decades, we've played with bands who had one big hit or two big hits, and the band, or the artist, is so tired of playing that song that they change it up a lot. And the bad part about that is, oftentimes, a band will change up one of their big hits because they're tired of it. But it's unrecognizable to the crowd, maybe until they get to the chorus. ‘Oh my god, this is my favorite song,’ and it doesn't even sound like the song that the audience was expecting,” he said. “When a band like Firefall, or Orleans, or any of us from the ’70s that still have the good fortune to go out and play shows for people around the country, there's a big responsibility that the band has. And that is to, on the songs that really matter – that people are paying really good money to come here – they need to sound like the records. That's just one of the givens.
“I don't really think that it's right for a band to say, ‘Oh, I'm so tired of playing this song, change it up a little bit.’ Frankly, ‘You Are the Woman,’ I've been playing for 40-plus years, and I have to play the same guitar solo every time. And I like it. And it's really great having a hit that big, and seeing the people's reaction to it.
“And actually, when we go do a meet-and-greet after the show … it's really humbling and fulfilling and wonderful to hear people's story. ‘Oh, we got married to “Just Remember I Love You.” ’ Or, ‘I was really sick for a year. And, boy, your song, blank, got me through my illness.’ It's really humbling to hear people's stories, because music is such a big part of a lot of people's lives, including ours who play it.”
Firefall was formed in a musically rich era, and its members worked with myriad Rock & Roll Hall of Fame acts. On Sept. 20, the band will release “FRIENDS & FAMILY” to honor those connections.
“Our first single is out already. It's our version of the Lynyrd Skynyrd song ‘Simple Man,’ ” Bartley said.
“The concept behind this new album is really pretty amazing. … Our manager, about a year and a half ago, called me and said, ‘You know, the original guys in Firefall, many of them were in other famous bands,’ like the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers and Spirit, Jo Jo Gunne, Heart, Dan Fogelberg – in my case, Gram Parsons. ‘Why don't you do an album of just their material?’
“And when he said that, it was like, ‘Wow, what a great idea.’ And the light bulb went on in my head. And I said, ‘Well, you know, let's add to that. In 1976, when our first album came out, and it went Gold real quick and put us on tour with many of the most famous bands going then – we toured with Fleetwood Mac first on the ‘White’ album then the ‘Rumours’ tour; we toured with The Band, with Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson and all the boys; and we toured with The Doobie Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Marshall Tucker – I suggested, ‘Why don't we do a song of theirs, too, on this album?’ ”
Bartley noted, “It's not really cover songs, although we are covering songs from some of those bands. We're honoring not only those bands and those songs, but the late-’60s and early- and middle-’70s that Firefall got big on, and we toured with so many bands and got to be friends with them. It's really great, because we got to pick many of the best songs of the ’70s to be on this record.
“And with that, of course, came big responsibility. Like, when we were trying to figure out which Heart song to play, somebody suggested to me, ‘Hey, let's play Barracuda.’ I went, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ ‘Barracuda’ should only be sung by Heart. Somebody else suggested, ‘Hey, let's do ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ by The Band.’ And I went, ‘No, no, no, no.’ Levon Helm is the only guy that should really sing that song.
“So, we have to be really careful and pick wisely and be able to pull off a Doobie Brothers song or a Fleetwood Mac song.”
Bartley said, “We honor those bands that we got to know so well. … And it kind of just fits in with the whole thing about those times. I mean, the ’70s will never happen again, for the wide variety of music that we listeners on the radio and fans and album buyers had to choose from. I mean, the ’70s was fantastic.
“We are, with our ‘FRIENDS & FAMILY’ album, pretty much kind of doffing our hat and honoring a lot of those songs.”
Find the album song list, and learn more about Firefall, by visiting the band’s website: https://firefallofficial.com/.