Grand Funk Railroad, the quintessential American band, came to the Villages for a spectacular rock show at the end of their 2021 tour on December 18th. The Villages are 17 planned retirement communities spanning three counties in Central Florida. It is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. The community sponsors a week-long open-air concert series in December on the vast green grounds of the Polo Club. The 90-minute concerts are an elaborate production subsidized by the community featuring an outdoor stage with a massive sound system, giant state-of-the-art multimedia screens, a live multi-camera feed, and many food and beverage vendors.
Grand Funk Railroad was originally an obscure Michigan rock trio with some minor hits when the band allowed the infamous music producer Terry Knight to become their manager. The Michigan rockers were an opening band at one of the first big music festivals after Woodstock in 1969, the Atlanta Pop Festival. Their live show was so well received that they returned as headliners for the 1970 festival, which featured some of the biggest names in rock at the time. While early music critics panned their records and most radio stations refused to play their music, the band's live show was so revered by fans that the group became the top-selling American band of the time. Much like The Clash or the Sex Pistols during the punk era in England or Nirvana in the grunge era, the band played a fresh raw sound different from more mainstream polished rock bands of their time. The band mixed raucous rock beats with funky rhythms that the players grew up hearing in African American music popular in Detroit. The result was a hard-driving funky rock sound unlike anything heard on the radio, and the band became blue-collar rock heroes. After the band parted ways with Knight in 1972, the trio added a keyboard player and enlisted Todd Rundgren to produce more R&B influenced music. The result was a more radio-friendly sound that created the band's most popular hit songs.
The group had disbanded and reunited several times, but for most of the 21st century, the lineup has featured two of the three original members, Don Brewer on drums and Mel Schacher on bass. In addition, the band replaced the legendary guitarist Mark Farner with two veteran rock guitarists. Max Carl, most well-known for his work in 38 Special, became the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. Bruce Kulick, who has played in many hard rock powerhouse bands, including Kiss, lays down the heavy lead guitar licks. Rounding out the current group is keyboardist Tim Cashion.
Fans arrived early at the Villages concert, lining up their trademark golf carts to get a good spot 4 hours before showtime. The unique venue offers an area for people to pull up their carts in a first-come, first-serve lineup. Upfront, there is an open seating area where hundreds of fans gathered on lawn chairs. A DJ played classic rock hits to warm up the crowd while they enjoyed copious amounts of food and beverages from various vendors. The band exploded on stage at 8 pm just as a full moon rose behind the crowd. The massive sound system echoed far back into the cart section, with everyone in the vast crowd receiving a significant rock sound experience. The band opened with back-to-back rock classics “Rock & Roll Soul” and “Footstompin’ Music," bringing much of the crowd to their feet. The group then launched into the 70s classic “Shinin’ On” from the album of the same name. Next came one of the band's biggest radio hits, the cover of the Carole King song “Do The Loco-Motion," which brought another standing ovation. Then, as the moon rose higher in the surprisingly warm December sky, the massive video screens brought the band larger than life to music fans huddling in their carts in the back, many with their own picnic baskets and wine bottles. The band then played “Walk Like A Man” from the 1973 hit album We’re An American Band before segueing into the classic Don Brewer drum solo that has been part of the band's show since the beginning. Kulick and Schacher kicked in jamming guitar and bass at the end of the solo.
Kulick then took over solo duties, performing his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a la Jimi Hendrix style. Finally, the jam crossed over into the band’s version of “Inside Looking Out” by the Animals, from their 1969 Grand Funk album. For early GFR fans, this signature song showcases the band's funky rock skills at their finest.
All beaming smiles as the crowd roared their approval; the group ended the set with three of their biggest hits. First, the Soul Brothers Six cover of “Some Kind of Wonderful” wowed the crowd. Then Cashion got his moment to shine as keyboardist on the classic rock anthem “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” Finally, the band ended triumphantly with the rock anthem “We’re an American Band.”