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Man of Many Styles

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nearly two decades ago, nimble-fingered guitarist Steve Morse came raging out of the South in the band called the Dixie Dregs.

The group produced some of the oddest mongrel music ever committed to record: part brainy rock-fusion, part down-home wailing.

While Morse’s studied and also heated playing made him a guitar hero, he could have ended up in the cult margins of the music scene where guitar virtuosos often go.

Who would have guessed that, in the late ‘90s, Morse would be one of rock’s most versatile side men? Several years ago, Morse was resident guitar wizard for the pop-metal band Kansas. For the past two years, Morse has been happily ensconced in the reformed hard-rock band Deep Purple, assuming the role originally filled by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore.

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But Morse has never forsaken his own unique instrumental music, which he’ll bring to the Ventura Theatre on Saturday night.

Born in 1955 in Ohio and bred mostly in the South, Morse now lives in Florida, a single father raising a 6-year-old son. Recently, he put out “Stressfest,” his sixth album as a leader, released on the High Street label, a division of Windham Hill.

Was there a significance to the title? “Yes, in a way. I was moving, getting divorced, didn’t have a place to live yet,” he said. “Real quickly, my manager called and said, ‘The record company wants to know the title of the new album.’ ”

“Stressfest” it was. Morse explained, “The energy there says it all. Once you play that, it takes the stress out of you.” To hear him describe it, the music is a “very obvious mix of bluegrass and heavy metal.”

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Part of what has made Morse such a unique figure in guitar circles is the fact that he has never fit in. He straddles different musical genres, without ever settling in one place.

“It’s kind of like I have this instinct so that lots and lots of people will hate what I do,” he said, laughing.

After his brief West Coast tour, Morse will embark on an extensive South American tour with Deep Purple, before going into the studio to record their next album. He also has been performing in duets with the noted classical guitarist Manuel Barreco.

The classical influence is never very far in Morse’s own work. In fact, Morse--the hopeless ambi-stylist--was studying classical guitar while in the jazz department at the University of Florida, where the Dixie Dregs formed.

Morse’s faithful following has inspired him to continue pursuing his own muse. The exposure he gets now as a member of Deep Purple doesn’t hurt his solo work.

Which of his musical roles, then, incur more stress? “The most stressful of all is my solo shows, where it’s just me.

“When I say stress with music, it’s not like bad stress.” He paused, searching for the right phrase. “It’s more a state of heightened arousal.”

BE THERE

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Steve Morse will perform Saturday at Ventura Theatre, 23 S. Chestnut St., Ventura. Tickets are $15. Show starts at 8 p.m., with Storyville opening; 648-1888.


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