The country-rock band will play its classics, as well as new music, Sunday at the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich.
The number didn’t seem real to Mike Reilly until he had a new stage backdrop and tour T-shirts made for his band, Pure Prairie League.
“I looked at them and thought, ‘Fifty years! Jesus!’” laughs Reilly, who has been the bassist for the country rock group since the early 1970s. The group continues to play about 50 shows a year, including one on Sunday at the Greenwich Odeum.
Despite that golden milestone, Reilly says that when the band members gather to play — either in concert, at rehearsal or to test songs for their next album — time seems nonexistent. Sure, they’re older and have more life experience than the teenagers they once were, hailing from the region straddling southern Ohio and northern Kentucky. But the connection they make when playing tunes like “Amie” and “Falling In and Out of Love” hasn’t changed a bit.
Or, depending on how Reilly chooses to look at it, the band has changed completely — and for the better.
“We’re a totally new band every time we play,” Reilly says, referring to the life force of their music. “We’ve dragged out songs that we haven’t played since 1972 or ’73, and they feel new and fun.”
Pure Prairie League continues to generate music — two brand-new pieces are on the current tour set list, with two more coming by May — but Reilly says they are branded with the band’s iconic sound.
″‘Old Friend’ could have been on one of our albums in the 1970s, and ‘Modern Problems’ could have been from the Vince Gill years,” he says, referring to the period when the country star served as the band’s lead singer. “We try to expand musically, but it always feels and sounds like Pure Prairie League.”
If you go …
What: Pure Prairie League, with guest Marielle Kraft
When: Sunday, 7 p.m.
Where: The Greenwich Odeum, 59 Main St., East Greenwich
Information: (401) 885-4000, greenwichodeum.com
The band is credited with blending strains of country and rock ‘n’ roll for a new country-rock genre that became popular in the early to mid-1970s, but Reilly downplays their role in the movement. He points to bands like Poco, the Burrito Brothers, The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash as being more pronounced with that style.
“It was just the music we liked. We were playing rock ‘n’ roll that showed the influence of where we grew up. We played it the way we felt it,” Reilly says. “Our sound, too, was more Midwestern and country than the California folk sound from Poco and Crosby, Stills & Nash. We blended in bluegrass and R&B.”
Back in the day, Pure Prairie League was popular on the college concert circuit, and the fans who fell in love with that Midwestern sound back then fill the seats at their concerts today. They like the smooth sound and real lyrics.
“We’ve had many people tell us that we were the soundtrack of their lives,” Reilly says, adding that while the musicians’ “sensibilities as writers have changed” with age, the subjects they write about have not.
“We always write about experiences. ‘Old Friend’ was originally a letter Donnie [Clark] wrote to a friend of his. We write about what touches people. That’s an artist’s responsibility.”
Pure Prairie League plays the Greenwich Odeum, 59 Main St., East Greenwich, on Sunday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. For more information, go to greenwichodeum.com.
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As I get older, I warm up more and more to laid-back Americana, delving far beyond the tunes of Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, and Townes Van Zandt that I revered as a wee lad. I’ve sought out vintage practitioners of acoustic twang such as Country Funk, Uncle Jim’s Music, and Hearts & Flowers, who are just as good but a bit more obscure—though of course, each band imploded after an album or two. Pure Prairie League fall firmly on the more mainstream end of the Americana spectrum, and while many people assume they’re a one-hit wonder thanks to the 1973 single release of “Amie” (it reached number 27 in 1975), the band actually had a long and varied country-rock career. Founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1970, Pure Prairie League took their name from a fictional temperance union in the 1939 Errol Flynn western Dodge City. After some early lineup changes, the band recorded a self-titled 1972 LP for RCA with a roster of singer-guitarist Craig Fuller, vocalist George Ed Powell, guitarist and mandola player Robin Suskind, steel guitarist John David Call, bassist Jim Lanham, and drummer Jim Caughlan. Unfortunately, the album wasn’t exactly a hit, and Call, Caughlan, and Lanham soon left the band. The group’s second album, Bustin’ Out, came out that same year and focused on Fuller’s songs; it also featured the first appearance of longtime member pianist Michael Connor, plus string arrangements from Mick Ronson, who was fresh from playing guitar for David Bowie and Mott the Hoople. Despite those strengths, Bustin’ Out initially faltered as well, and after Fuller was sentenced to six months in jail for draft evasion in 1973, the band was dropped by RCA. Fuller was soon pardoned, but he didn’t rejoin Pure Prairie League, even though his catchy Bustin’ Out single “Amie” was exploding in popularity, resulting in RCA re-signing the band and rereleasing the album in 1974. (Call did rejoin at around this time, though.) Despite even more lineup shuffles—including the addition of one Mr. Vince Gill in 1978—the next five PPL albums all went Top 40, and in 1980 the band signed with the mostly-disco-plus-Kiss label Casablanca. Fuller rejoined in 1985, after starting the soft, rootsy late-70s group American Flyer with the Velvet Underground’s Doug Yule, and played with PPL through what were assumed to be their final shows in 1988. The story doesn’t end there, though: a decade later, Fuller restarted the band with many PPL alumni in tow, and after he left in 2012, they went on without him. Now led by Call and vocalist-bassist Michael Reilly (an on-and-off member since 1972), Pure Prairie League seem to be struggling a bit without Fuller’s distinctive bluegrassy voice, at least if recent online footage can be trusted. But considering the group’s history of constant change, you might want to catch them now anyway.
As far as Mike Reilly is concerned, the Pure Prairie League has played only one bad show in the past 49-and-a-half years of its existence.
“Even then, I don’t think the audience noticed,” said the band’s longtime bassist and singer of the unnamed gig. “We play and record our music and people pay their hard-earned cash to come see us. We want to honor and respect that.”
Pure Prairie League will show how much Park City audiences mean to the band when it plays a string of concerts from Friday to Sunday at the Egyptian Theatre.
“This is our sixth three-day residency in the last eight years,” Reilly said. “It’s becoming a happy habit for us. It’s also a joy to come back to Park City.”
I think we brought out the real flavor of these songs that wasn’t on the albums all those years ago…” Mike Reilley, Pure Prairie League singer and bassist
The bassist promised the concerts will include their hits like “Amie,” “Let Me Love You Tonight” and “Two Lane Highway,” as well as other fan favorites and deep cuts such as “Woman” and “Angel No. 9,” that the band hasn’t played since 1973.
“We’re having more fun than ever reinvesting in these songs,” Reilly said. “We’ve always tried to keep current with our material, but the others are just great songs. And with the band we have now, it really lights those tunes up. They sound better than they did on the records. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but I think we brought out the real flavor of these songs that wasn’t on the albums all those years ago.”
Keeping up the high quality of music is a responsibility Reilly doesn’t intend to shirk.
“That’s just the way we do it,” he said. “If something doesn’t sound good to us, we’ll just keep working on it. It’s important to show respect to these songs.”
The only real challenges of playing in a band that has been around for almost five decades is making sure it continues to book concerts and that it has the personnel to play them.
“A band is like a marriage,” Reilly said. “If it doesn’t grow, it stagnates and you fall out of love, and that puts it in danger of breaking up.”
Pure Prairie League started unofficially in 1965 with singer and guitarist Craig Fuller, drummer Tom McGrail, guitarist Jim Caughlan and steel guitarist John David Call. McGrail named the band after a temperance union that figures into the plot of “Dodge City,” a Western starring Errol Flynn.Errol Flynn film “Dodge City.”
Throughout the years, band members have come and gone, and at one point featured an upcoming singer-songwriter named Vince Gill.
The band’s lineup currently consists of founding member Call, Reilly, guitarist Donnie Lee Clark, drummer Scott Thompson and keyboardist Rand Harper.
“This band has always been able to bounce back stronger every time we’ve had a change,” he said. “We’ve just always moved forward.”
One of the reasons why the band has been able to continue is the quality of its members, according to Reilly.
“Rule No. 1 for a bass player, and any musician as far as I’m concerned, is to play with cats who can play better than you,” he said. “Whenever I looked to put in the band, whether they were a singer, songwriter or instrumentalist, I looked for those who really played better than me, which really isn’t a stretch. That makes everybody’s game stand up and say howdy.”
Reilly’s standards have paid off throughout the years when it comes to the band’s current audience.
“We have those our age who were in college back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as young kids whose parents raised them on our music,” he said “We also kids who just like the older stuff better than what’s coming out these days. I hate to use the overused word like synergy, but there are a whole lot of things that come together for this monster that’s called Pure Prairie League. We’re just lucky to be long for the ride.”
In addition to prioritizing their audience, Pure Prairie League also raises awareness of nonprofits like Autism Speaks and Donate Life.
“These charities are important for me because they’re personal,” Reilly said. “My youngest son is autistic. I had (a liver) transplant in 2006. We feel that you have to give back one way or another.”
Looking down the road, Reilly said the band may record a new album.
“We’ve got two or three new songs in the set, and we are looking for a chance to record them in the studio,” he said. “We have been recording all of our live shows so we can see what we can put together from there.”
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