AWB is still funky after all these years

Susan Whitall
Detroit News Music Writer

They call themselves AWB, but the Scottish funk group that Allen Gorrie, Onnie McIntyre and four of their countrymen launched in the early ’70s was known for years as the Average White Band. The group scored in the early ’70s with funky hits such as “Pick Up the Pieces” and “Cut the Cake.”

Contrary to what Wikipedia says, singer Bonnie Bramlett didn’t name the group, which she flew all the way across the Atlantic to back her up on her “Sweet Bonnie Bramlett” album. Once again, Wikipedia is as wrong as six rabbits.

“Bonnie didn’t even like our name,” Gorrie says with a laugh. “It was tongue in cheek, self-deprecating.” He’s talking by phone in advance of AWB’s appearance at Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit for the last “Fourth Friday” of the season.

Gorrie (guitar, bass and vocals) and McIntyre (guitar and vocals) are the two remaining founding members of AWB — today the group is of various ethnicities, including African-American. “They’ve all been positive changes, improvements,” Gorrie says. “These are all guys who have grown up with our music. Grant Carter used to be with Tower of Power; he’s the real deal.”

Drummer Rocky Bryant’s style is reminiscent of former AWB drummer Steve Ferrone’s, Gorrie says. But virtuosity has to know its place in funk. “Our music demands that you don’t show off. It’s like Motown’s Funk Brothers; everybody played their part. The sum is so much more if everybody holds down their part instead of flying off.”

AWB played Campus Martius last summer, but was not able to complete the show because of lightning. Yes, the vagaries of post-millennial Detroit weather.

“We’re coming back to finish what we began,” Gorrie says. “Detroit is very special to us because we grew up playing in bands in Scotland where if you didn’t play Motown music, you didn’t have a gig. Motown was the dance music of young Scotland in the 1960s.”

And yes, they have been to the Motown museum. “Three summers ago, when we were playing at the Opera House with Tower of Power, we had a day off and were invited up to Motown. It was the first time that we’d been in the Snakepit,” Gorrie says of the fabled Motown recording studio. “I can’t describe it. There’s definitely spirits in there, good ones.”

It would seem the group’s sound is rooted more in the funk pioneered by James Brown, with the horns playing percussively just as his horn section did. But Gorrie can’t say enough about the Detroit sound.

“My idol has always been James Jamerson, the greatest recorded bass player, ever,” Gorrie says. “He was a genius. I liked the whole unit: (drummers) Benny Benjamin, Uriel Jones, you never know which drummer was on which track ... and the string arrangements and the horn arrangements weren’t bombastic, but absolutely essential.”

Scotsmen playing — and singing — music usually associated with American blacks isn’t so far-fetched, Gorrie says.

“Being Scottish has a lot to do with it,” Gorrie says. “The Celtic music that we grew up with in Scotland has a great affinity with what became soul music in the U.S. It has a lot of the same lilt and swing to it. The Scottish throat somehow is quite adept at singing in the same manner and style that black Americans do. And you’ve got to have the vocal quality; there’s no way of getting around that. We were really stringent on ourselves that we would come to the States and hold our own with the music that inspired us.”

The group has traditionally drawn a lot of black fans, but today they draw a mixed audience, including younger ones.

So we have to ask — what about Scottish independence from Great Britain, which will be decided in a vote Sept. 18?

“I’m concerned about it,” Gorrie says. “I’m not really a nationalist because of what I’ve done. I have a peripatetic lifestyle. I don’t think today is the time to isolate yourself. It’s a rough financial world, and do you want to go out there in a canoe instead of a large ship? The United Kingdom has a certain financial and cultural power in the world, still.”

Average White Band

Opening acts: Bob Seger tribute band Lookin’ Back and Amp Fiddler

5:30 p.m. Friday

Fourth Friday,

Campus Martius Park,

downtown Detroit.