Home Read Albums Of The Week: Firefall | Friends & Family

Albums Of The Week: Firefall | Friends & Family

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “When groups reach their fifth decade like Firefall has, they develop deep roots with their fellow musicians, whether it’s from sharing touring bills or the shuffling of band members. On Friends & Family, Firefall celebrate these relationships by performing songs from bands whose histories are intertwined with theirs. These 13 tracks, representing multiple Rock And Roll Hall of Fame inductees, country rock pioneers, Southern rock superstars, and Top 40 hit-makers, create an album that stands — in the words of Firefall’s remaining founding member, guitarist Jock Bartley — “as a tribute to the great music of the ’70s.”

Firefall contributed their share to of hits to their decade. They lit up airwaves with a string of singles, starting with their 1976 smash You Are the Woman. They toured with Fleetwood Mac, The Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Doobie Brothers. While the band’s melodic, country-flavored rock is present throughout Friends & Family, Firefall also show their deep respect for these songs that they, and millions of others, love. Their intention wasn’t about perfectly recreating the originals, explains Bartley, who produced the album. “We wanted to duplicate the energy in the songs and make them familiar but make the music a little bit different and put a new slant on the songs.”

This approach is fully evident on the opening track, The Doobie BrothersLong Train Running. The band flips the guitar parts, as well as adding Jim Waddell’s saxophone, resulting in a rendition that sounds similar but isn’t a replication. For Poco’s In The Heart Of The Night, Bartley decided to not include a pedal steel (played on the original by Rusty Young, a longtime Firefall friend who died in 2021), but instead played a slide guitar to achieve the same vibe. Similarly, while their version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man stays true to the tune’s thunderous sound, a nimble accordion solo (provided by album guest John Magnie of Subdudes) delivers a nice sonic touch.

Friends & Family features two songs that feel tailormade for this project: Loggins & Messina’s Angry Eyes and Marshall Tucker Band’s Can’t You See. Like Firefall, Loggins & Messina’s music was rooted in acoustic guitars, harmonies and offering a touch of sax. On their rendition, Firefall cut several minutes off the ’70s-jam original, while also injecting a rockier edge. Marshall Tucker and Firefall were among the few American rock bands to use a flute. In fact, long-time woodwind/keyboard player David Muse, who joined Firefall before their first album, also performed with Marshall Tucker beginning in the late ’90s. Sadly Muse, who passed away from cancer in 2022, was too ill to play on this track. Firefall dedicated Friends & Family to him.

The album’s Family side also includes the sparkling take of I Feel A Whole Lot Better (featuring exquisite 12-string guitar by guest John Jorgensen), which connects to Firefall’s first drummer (and Byrds’ first drummer) Michael Clarke as well as to Chris Hillman, who produced Firefall’s first demos. Colorado, popularized by Linda Ronstadt and The Flying Burrito Brothers, was written by Rick Roberts, a Burrito Brother before co-founding Firefall. Bartley played lead guitar on Gram Parsons’ first solo tour but was gone by the time Parsons did Ooh Las Vegas, so this is the first time Bartley has recorded the tune. Before being Fireball’s first bassist, Mark Andes (who recently retired from the band) was in the eclectic psychedelic group Spirit, represented here by their classic I Got A Line On You. Andes later was in Heart and played on their hit What About Love. The Friends & Family version of that song offers new guitar work from Heart’s original guitarist Howard Leese, along with spotlighting the powerful vocals of Firefall’s newest member, singer/bassist John Bisaha (also of The Babys).

As a band, Firefall holds an unusually strong sense of family. Beyond Bartley and Bisaha, the other band members all have long associations with the group. Sandy Ficca has served as drummer since 1984. Multi-instrumentalist Jim Waddell is on his fifth stint with the band, joining again in 2022 following Muse’s death. Singer-guitarist Steve Weinmeister is on his second go-round with the band. Friends & Family provides a marvelous showcase for how well Weinmeister’s voice meshes with Bisaha’s and Bartley’s, a reminder of how vocal harmonies have always been a signature part of Firefall’s sound.

Firefall began in 1974 when both Bartley and Roberts were living in Boulder, Colo. They started to play together, with Andes soon joining them. Initially, the three planned to record Roberts’ third solo album, but it felt more like a band when they played together. Roberts soon enlisted singer/songwriter Larry Burnett, and Clarke came aboard on drums, and Firefall was born. Bartley still marvels at how Burnett and Roberts not only brought a dozen songs apiece to the band, but also how wonderfully their songwriting and singing balanced with one another. Combined with Andes’ jazz-influenced bass playing, Clarke’s “King of Four-Four Time” drumming, Bartley’s lead guitar work and Muse’s contributions on woodwinds and keyboards, Firefall created a “magical synergy” together. “We didn’t have to sound like anything,” Bartley explains. “We just sounded like us.”

The band found huge success with their 1976 self-titled debut which contained their biggest hit You Are the Woman which landed in the Top 10 and two other singles Livin’ Ain’t Livin’ and Cinderella which broke into the top 45. Their next albums Luna Sea and Élan each delivered singles (Just Remember I Love You  and Strange Way respectively) that reached No. 11 on the Billboard Top 100. Bartley credits these albums as laying the foundation of songs that have entertained audiences over the decades. “I just know how fortunate I am still to be doing this,” he confides. “We can play a 45-minutes set out on the road of nothing but AM smash hits or FM hits.”

Firefall is greatly excited with how Friends & Family has turned out and looking forward to integrating these songs into their live sets. “I think this might be some of the best stuff I’ve ever been involved with,” Bartley shares. “The songs, the lyrics, and our performance of them really shine through.” The band is so thrilled that they already are planning to do a second volume.”

Check the site on the weekend to watch my Zoom interview with Jock Bartley.