Former Grand Funk singer ready for a string of acoustic concerts
January 12, 2016
Grand Funk Railroad is known for epic rockers like "I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home," "We’re an American Band" and the groovy remake of Little Eva’s "Locomotion."
When the band’s former singer and guitarist Mark Farner plays a three-night stand at the Egyptian Theatre beginning on Thursday, Jan. 14, audiences will hear those songs in a whole different acoustic light.
"I’m friends with [country singer] John Anderson and he and I have written songs together and we have the same guitar," Farner said during a telephone interview with The Park Record from North Michigan. "Anyway, he’s been out doing acoustic shows and has told me how great that is and has encouraged me to get into it."
Farner did his first acoustic concert in Bay City to accolades.
"Everybody enjoyed it, although it was very different without a set of drums and the bass kicking y’all in the butt," Farner said. "But it was very rewarding to me to do it and have it work. I got so many good comments, so I told my agent that I would like to do more."
In addition to some Grand Funk Railroad hits, the concerts will feature some surprises and deep cuts from Farner’s catalog.
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"We tried several that just do not work acoustically, so I pulled some songs from records that go back to 1969," he said. "So we have been able to do some songs that people have asked me to do in my electric show with my band, and you’ve got to be a Funkhead to know some of these songs."
Two of these gems will be "Little Johnny Hooker" and "Mr. Prettyboy."
"When I told people I would be doing ‘Mr. Prettyboy,’ they couldn’t believe it," Farner said with a laugh.
Farner will be accompanied by his accompanist Dusty D’Annunzio who will fill out the pieces and sing back ups.
"We’re both country hicks and live out in the sticks, but love to get in front of people and throw down some tunes," Farner said. "I’m looking forward to the dates. I hear it’s a wonderful theater. That coincides with what I like doing and where I like playing."
Farner’s path to music was a start-stop-start situation.
"I started playing the tuba when I was in fifth grade and back then, I was just a small-framed guy with a heavy list to the left with that tuba," he said with a laugh. "We’d get out on the field and have to march and swing and it was tough."
All the while, Farner kept looking toward the football team.
"I saw all the chicks over there and laughed because they weren’t hanging out with the band, so, in the eighth grade I got into football," he said. "One day, we scrimmaged with the varsity and all of a sudden I had water on the knee and fractured fingers.
"The doctor told my mom that I wouldn’t be able to play football for the rest of the season and I wouldn’t be able to run track because of my knee," Farner said.
Luckily for Farner, his mom bought him a Kay flat top guitar.
"It would have made a better bow for an arrow, because the strings were so far away from the neck," Farner laughed. "But she also got me six lessons from Marshall Music where we were living."
Unfortunately, Farner’s teacher, after a couple of lessons, shot his foot off during a hunting accident.
"He called my mom and told me he wasn’t going to be able to continue teaching lessons, but said I should go watch a four-piece band that was made of guys who were in high school," Farner said. "So, I would hang and watch them make chords and try to do it on my guitar."
That’s when Farner’s mom bought him a Harmony electric guitar through the Fingerhut Catalog.
"It came with a matching amplifier that had an eight-inch speaker and I finally got good enough to where I could plug the guitar into the amp and play and sing at the same time," he said.
Five years later, Farner became the bassist for Terry Knight and the Pack.
"We performed at the first Atlanta Pop Festival and I mean, 180,000 people loved us so the producers moved us up into the lineup so we could have lights and a presentation," he said. "When I think about it, I still get goosebumps."
In 1969, Farner formed Grand Funk Railroad with drummer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher.
"I never thought I’d be still playing today because there was no such thing as classic rock and there was only AM and FM stations," Farner said. "FM was considered underground and that’s where Grand Funk got most of its airplay."
In 1971, the band was so popular it sold out New York’s Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles did in 1965.
"We sold out Shea with music that I wrote that didn’t hit any type of charts because it was played on FM," Farner said. "I mean, the DJs would get blasted out of their minds and put one of our songs on and have time to go to the bathroom, smoke a cigarette and come back to the booth to hear the remainder of the song."
These days Farner is happy the songs have stood the test of time.
"I look at it as a total compliment that people still want to hear something I had something to do with," he said. "I remember putting my heart into the songs during the recording sessions. I meant every word I was singing. I close my eyes and become the character of the songs I was singing and try to present the song in that light.
"I believe that that was very influential with people," Farner said. "Long before videos, people’s imagination had a lot to do with what they listened to. And I think that’s sorely lacking today. I’m the guy who would read the book and go to the movies and say, ‘That’s not even close to what I was picturing when I was reading the book.’"
Throughout his 50-year career, Farner has seen success with Grand Funk Railroad, his solo career, performed with Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band, and won a Dove Award, but there are two experiences that trump all.
"When I got off stage at New York City in the Fillmore East in 1970, our manager led us back to our dressing room and that was something he didn’t do before," Farner said. "The rest of the guys didn’t know what was going on either, but we had our fingers crossed that a girl would pop out of a cake."
That didn’t happen, but something better did.
"We open the door to our dressing room and there is Jimi Hendrix standing there with that grin on his face," Farner said. "I went, ‘Ah, you’re a great guitar player.’ And that was the only intelligent thing I could say, because he was my guitar god. I mean, he made the guitar sing and cry to me."
Another memorable incident involved Janis Joplin.
"We played a pop festival in Florida that the Rolling Stones were going to headline," Farner said. "Janis stayed to see our set and we all got into this helicopter and flew back to the hotel, but when got there, we couldn’t find Janis. So, I went back to the chopper and saw Janis smearing something on the seats."
Turned out that Joplin was smearing melted Hershey bars on the seats.
"She looked at me with a big grin and said, ‘I want to mess up Mick’s britches,’" Farner said, laughing.
While it’s fun to think about the past, Farner has his eye on the future.
"I’m getting ready to sign a contract with a company across the pond to start making a new album," he said. "I’ve got some new songs and a couple of remakes that we’ll use to put a new album together for release in the spring."
The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., will present Mark Farner, formerly of Grand Funk Railroad, from Thursday, Jan. 14, to Saturday, Jan. 16. The performances will start at 8 p.m. Thursday tickets range from $29 to $45 and Friday and Saturday tickets are $35 to $55. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.parkcityshows.com.
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