They were arguably the top band in the world in 1970 or 1971, but I dismissed them as just so much noise.
I wasn’t alone. Grand Funk Railroad had as its motto “nobody loves us but the people.” The critics hated them, but their albums sold millions and they set attendance records wherever they played live. The trio from Flint, Michigan, led by Mark Farner, were a really big thing.
I still didn’t like them. Although I made an exception for a one song, “I’m Your Captain/Closer to Home” because it seemed to me to be a bit more melodic than most of their offerings. When they came to Montreal, where I lived at the time, I didn’t for a second consider going to the show.
My friend Bruce must have been a Grand Funk fan. He noted from one of my earlier posts that I had seen Mark Farner perform at Barrymore’s in September 1986, back when that club was one of Canada’s top venues for live music. He asked if I would write about that.
So why did someone who disliked Grand Funk Railroad go to Barrymore’s to hear Mark Farner? A lot can change in 15 years. My musical tastes had expanded somewhat, and in the interim Mark had become a Christian. As a Christian broadcaster that meant the show was work for me – I would be going no matter my personal tastes.
I also did want to hear the band Mark was using as an opening act/backup group. They were called Vision, and their keyboard player was a guy named Billy Powell, who had previously been the keyboardist for Lynyrd Skynrd, a band whose music I had always enjoyed. I was looking forward to Vision more than I was to Mark Farner.
I don’t remember all that much about the show. My memory fades as time passes. Vision were good, and Billy’s playing was excellent. Mark mixed up his Grand Funk tunes with his solo material, which was mostly about his relationship with Jesus Christ. Memory can be deceptive at times, but I am pretty sure he finished with his reworked version of “Some Kind of Wonderful.” What I do remember most is the audience.
Grand Funk Railroad was a working class band from a blue collar community that attracted a similar audience. The top level of Barrymore’s (which at the time had five levels) was filled with bikers. Hells Angels members I was told, though I didn’t go up to look.
The show ended with a surprise twist, something unusual in bars then and now. Mark presented the Christian message, and invited people to come forward and pray with him if they wanted to become Christians.
I was surprised at that, and I must admit even more surprised that people took him up on the offer. I didn’t count, but I remember it as being at least a dozen, mostly it seemed from the biker crowd.
Backstage I asked about that. I know that evangelists who come to town arrange with local churches to follow up with those who come forward at their rallies. Mark though was trusting that God would guide these new believers, that they would find appropriate Christian fellowship and grow in their new faith. I have no idea if that is how it eventually played out. I do know that Ottawa today, 30 years later has a biker church, which it didn’t then. Maybe its genesis was that evening.
It did remind me of the parable Jesus told his followers, one usually called “The Sower.” Maybe that is how Mark saw himself that night. His job was to play music and do a little preaching. What happened after that was up to God.
Footnote: I saw Grand Funk Railroad perform at Ottawa Bluesfest in 2013, without Mark Farner. I think I liked them better than I would have in 1971 – but that may not be saying much.