News Column

38 Special loaded up with hits for the Meadows

August 21, 2014

By Scott Tady, Beaver County Times, Pa.

Aug. 21--WASHINGTON, Pa. -- Melody and muscle take center stage Saturday at the Meadows Racetrack and Casino with classic-rock band 38 Special in concert.

"We make sure it's an explosive kind of performance," singer Don Barnes said.

Famed for '80s hits "Hold on Loosely," "Caught Up in You," and "Rockin' Into the Night," 38 Special will entertain fans outdoors at the racetrack.

"We have a lot of special effects we can do for a couple songs, 'Chain Lightnin' in particular," Barnes said. "My wife, Christine, is from Pittsburgh (an Avonworth High graduate), so I'm excited to play for the family. It'll be like old-home week. Roll back the rug and dance."

A touring band since 1977 that logs 100 dates a year, 38 Special has the pacing for its shows down to a science.

"We look at it like a graph," Barnes said. "You start off with a big opening, then climb and keep climbing until somewhere around the middle, you give everyone a little bit of a break with a second-chance song from the '80s. Then we just keep climbing higher and higher until, by the end, everyone's exhausted."

Decades of wear-and-tear have knocked out of the lineup two co-founders -- guitarist-vocalist Donnie Van Zant and bassist (and Pittsburgh native) Larry Junstrom.

Van Zant, middle brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd's original and current singers Ronnie and Johnny, stepped down last year, heeding strict orders from doctors concerned his inner-ear nerve damage would lead to deafness.

"It's due to all those years of exposure to loud noises," Barnes said, adding that Van Zant didn't wear protective earplugs or the in-ear monitors musicians wear now. "He always wanted us to aim these big six-foot amplifiers at him. He wanted to hear the guitars in his head as he was singing, and I guess it took its toll. But he's our brother and we send our love to him. His brother, Ronnie, was killed in a plane crash in '77, and I said, 'You know Ronnie would be proud you made it this far.' "

The band hasn't altered its hit-filled set list much due to Van Zant's absence.

"I was fortunate to have sung the radio songs over the years," Barnes said.

Barnes discovered the band's brand-new bassist, Barry Dunaway, in the RPM band, a rotating group of musical all-stars. He previously toured with Swedish guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen.

"Barry's been great," Barnes said. "Larry Junstrom had some thumb issues from hammering that bass hard for 34 years. He had to have surgery, and rehab was a problem and he was getting on in years. But Barry has added a new spark. We relive our old excitement through him."

The excitement for Barnes began in 1966, as a 14-year-old guitarist playing saloons near naval bases in Jacksonville, Fla. He witnessed the launch of Southern rock, seeing locals the Allman Brothers Band (in previous incarnations as the Allman Joys and the Hour Glass) performing for free in the park.

"I'd ride my bicycle to Allen Collins' house," Barnes said of the future Lynyrd Skynyrd member who co-wrote the hallowed "Free Bird." "He'd have an amplifier in the hallway rattling the windows. He'd play me these English blues records."

Once the Allman Brothers and Skynyrd were established, A&M Records came courting in Jacksonville hoping to strike Southern rock gold once more by signing 38 Special. When the band's first two releases didn't do well, members knew they'd need to break free from the Southern rock mold.

"We felt it was waning," Barnes said. "Southern rock had already been done by the best, Skynyrd and the Allmans. So we tried to take our influences, and create a style of our own. That was wisdom from Ronnie Van Zant many years ago. He said, 'Don't try to be a clone.' He said, 'Find your own truth, and what it is that makes your heart sing.' We realized we were a bit of British Invasion fans and liked some of the edges of ZZ Top and Bad Company. We think of our style as melody and muscle. Muscular guitar in your face, and great melody and a good story."

By simplifying its sound, 38 Special soon was churning out hits such as "Hold on Loosely" and "Caught Up in You." Inspired by a suffocating relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Barnes co-wrote "Hold on Loosely" with bandmate Jeff Carlisi and Survivor's Jim Peterik. The chorus: "Hold on loosely/But don't let go/If you cling too tightly/You're gonna lose control" has left a lasting impact.

"It's simple words, simple wisdom, but a lot of people have come up to us and said it meant so much," Barnes said. "Not to take credit for keeping marriages together, but people have said, 'That really made us think' about giving each other space to breathe and be themselves."

Barnes still writes songs, with 38 Special patiently working on its first studio album in a decade. The band soon will release an album rearranging old hits, though it won't be some cliched "unplugged" album, Barnes promised. "'Caught Up in You' has, like, this world beat."

The group also keeps an eye on movie soundtrack opportunities, having previously cashed in with "Teacher, Teacher" (Nick Nolte's "Teachers"), "Back to Paradise" ("Revenge of the Nerds II") and "Trooper with an Attitude" ("Super Troopers").

In arena rock's heyday, bands like 38 Special would tour to publicize albums. Now it's the opposite, with tours the bread-and-butter.

"You're probably better off just giving your music away," Barnes said without bitterness. "The more ears that hear it, the more chances they'll buy a ticket, then come to the show and buy a T-shirt. Live shows are what everyone's coming to see because you can't download the live shows."

Barnes' band makes sure the experience is memorable.

"We want to make sure it's a big bombastic production," Barnes said. "We want people to feel it's an escape. We realize how much effort it is for a fan. For a man and wife, you've got to get dinner, hire a baby sitter, park the car, get a beer, find your seat. After all that, we don't want people to say, 'They were just a little lackluster.' We want to completely bowl you over so you'll tell people, 'You missed it. They were great.'"


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Source: Beaver County Times (PA)

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