Sometimes when a band takes on an outsize personal importance — like Grand Funk Railroad did for me as a teenager — the passage of time carries the inevitability of disappointment, perhaps brought on by misplaced expectations.
That thought passed through my mind at Meijer Gardens Wednesday night as I watched a conga line erupt in the middle of Grand Funk's ultra-hokey rendition of "The Loco-Motion." Sure, the band sounded good — just like the records — and people were having a high time.
But something seemed off. It felt like a wedding reception.
Where was the claustrophobic doom of "Paranoid?" Where was the social conscience of "Sin's a Good Man's Brother" or "People, Let's Stop the War?" Where was Mark Farner's weird politics (and weirder hair)?
Finally it hit me -- the version of Grand Funk onstage Wednesday night is only vaguely related to the one that lives in my head.
To me, Grand Funk at its best represented a megaton mutation of Michigan R&B. They weren't as extreme as the MC5 or as avant garde as the Stooges. But they stood out from their West Coast hippie counterparts by being louder and more intense, rooted in working class populism.
That's not the well-oiled hit machine that kicked off the Meijer Gardens season Wednesday. First off, drummer/singer Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher have long been estranged from original singer/guitarist Mark Farner. The current lineup is rounded out by ex-38 Special singer Max Carl, ex-Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick and ex-Bob Seger keyboardist Tim Cashion.
They're all fabulous players with great rock 'n' roll pedigrees, and this lineup of the band has been together longer than the original group ever was. Yet something about it seems ersatz, more like the best Grand Funk tribute band imaginable than the genuine article.
The concept of authenticity a weird one to figure out, but the current version of Grand Funk only manages to trace out a crude sketch of the original band's power. The group's set focused on the hits — “Shining On,” “Walk Like a Man, “Some Kind of Wonderful” — and stripped the music of any of its original political or social consciousness. Carl does a great job mimicking Farner's voice, but when he sings his big .38 Special hit "Second Chance," you hear what is actual singing voice sounds like. It's depressing.
By the time Grand Funk reached the interminable drum solo and the weird drum circle-fueled song “Lighting and Thunder,” I was ready for a nap. The band didn't bother with the pretense of an encore, they just ended the set with “We're an American Band” — with Brewer sporting an oversized fuzzy novelty Uncle Sam top hat — and unplugged their amps on the way off the stage.
Now, it's not as though everything was terrible. Grand Funk still has a gargantuan rhythm section. Schacher's growling bass tone is enormous and frightening. He and Brewer lock into a soulful pocket that is undiminished by time.
But, at the end of the day, it's hard to shake the feeling that this band isn't really Grand Funk, just a reasonable facsimile.