By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Mark Farner hasn't played with us for nearly eight years," says Don Brewer, not hiding his animosity. Brewer, the drummer and co-founder of Grand Funk Railroad, one of the most critically panned yet immensely popular bands of the late '60s and early '70s, has come to grips with keeping the group together without its most recognizable name.
"I look at the current line-up as just another incarnation of the band," Brewer says. Yet the idea of Farner still being active in the corporation that owns the name seems to gnaw at him: "Our relationship is a bit strained, but [Farner] is still a business partner," he grudgingly admits.
Keeping some form of Grand Funk together for more than three decades has been a chore for Brewer. The classic line-up hit a high in 1973 with "We're an American Band" (a song Brewer wrote and sang), but Farner disbanded the group three years later. Upon reuniting in the '80s, the band splintered once again as Farner converted to Christianity.
Brewer bided his time, playing with Bob Seger, but decided to resurrect Grand Funk one more time in 1996, in part because he craved that connection to populist America.
"Everyone's always assumed that Grand Funk was the American band," says Brewer. "We were from Flint, Michigan, and we were the garage band from around the block that made it big."
Such nostalgia, not to mention the fact that Grand Funk could still sell out shows, playing to more than a quarter-million fans in a three-month period in 1997, contributed to Brewer's decision to keep the name alive. Once Farner decided to return to his solo gig, Brewer recruited Max Carl (.38 Special) and former Kiss lead guitarist Bruce Kulick and got back on the road, back to those middle-class Midwesterners that made the band famous in the first place.
"We were never the New York or Los Angeles darlings, that type of band," Brewer says. "We were always more Des Moines, Iowa, Toledo, Ohio. That's where we really broke and where we continue to do well."
The newest incarnation of Grand Funk has been touring steadily since 2000, playing the expected hits ("I'm Your Captain" along with the still-ballsy grooves of "The Loco-Motion" and "Some Kind of Wonderful") while contemplating a return to the studio that only the restricted playlists of contemporary radio might prevent.
"We have new songs that we do in the show," Brewer says. "But it's impossible to get classic rock radio to play anything new, and it's difficult to get any other kind of station to play anything by a band that is classic rock associated."
Undaunted even by his own skepticism, Don Brewer is just trying to keep those memories alive.
"Frank Zappa told us that all we were about was good singing and good playing, and that's what we still try to do."