Rock ‘n’ Roll Zelig

Since the Woody Allen movie came out 30 years ago, the name Zelig has become shorthand for someone who is seemingly able to fit in everywhere, frequently in the orbit of the famous. In the world of 70s rock, Starcastle was its Zelig.

I’ve written about Starcastle before, and my love for “Lady of the Lake,” their 1976 near-hit. The other day I found myself at the Starcastle Tour History page, which we’ve mentioned at this blog previously. It lists the Illinois prog-rock band’s gigs from its founding in 1973 through 1980. It’s complete enough to prove that for a time in the late 70s, nearly everybody in America had the chance to see Starcastle perform live.

The band that would become Starcastle formed in 1969. The tour history begins in 1973, when the band was known as Mad John Fever. For the next two years, they played lots and lots of bars, a few high school gyms, and a Ramada Inn. They occasionally shared a bill with big names, opening for Blue Oyster Cult, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Stories (in Platteville, Wisconsin, where I would go to college years later), Captain Beyond, and the Strawbs.

They were known as Pegasus for the Strawbs gig; at some point late in 1974 they had changed their name, and they promptly got in trouble with another Illinois band that already had the name. So they put some other likely choices into a hat and drew one. No name could have been better than Starcastle for the Yes-styled prog rock they would play over the next several years.

The tour history for 1975 is sketchy, as the band worked on their first album. It’s not until 1976, when the album is released, that they begin their Zelig-like transformation. In January they open for another conglomeration of heartland prog-rockers, Kansas, at the University of Missouri in Columbia. A month later they open for Gary Wright in St. Louis, but the next two nights they’re playing bars in southern Illinois before they open for the Electric Light Orchestra in Chicago. A week later they hook up with Kansas again (and Rush) for a show in the Chicago suburbs.

In two weeks of March 1976, following a bar gig in Mattoon, Illinois, Starcastle plays on bills with Journey, the J. Geils Band, Styx, and Peter Frampton. The next month, they alternated college gigs with spots on bigger arena shows (ELO, Rush and Thin Lizzy, Blue Oyster Cult and Styx). As their profile grew in 1976, they got some extended gigs, opening for both Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull for about a week at a time. They opened for Fleetwood Mac at shows in Green Bay and Madison during July.

In December 1976, Starcastle joined up with Boston (their CBS/Epic labelmates) for the first time. The two bands would spend much of February and March 1977 on the road together. A February 10 show on Long Island added East Coast legends Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes to the bill; on March 6, 1977, Boston and Starcastle played Madison. Through the remainder of 1977, Starcastle appeared with artists including Manfred Mann, ELO, Journey, Gary Wright, Rush, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Foreigner, Styx, Utopia, Kansas, and Robin Trower. Some of these were headlining gigs, not openers—Starcastle had released two albums in 1977, Fountains of Light in January and Citadel in October, both produced by Roy Thomas Baker, famed for his work with Queen.

The next year, 1978, saw lots of dates with Styx, but also what must have been one of those all-day outdoor shows, with Ted Nugent, Mahogany Rush, Journey, and Eddie Money, in Louisville in July. By 1979, however, it was back to the bars: Starcastle’s album Real to Reel had bombed, CBS had dropped them, and lead singer Terry Luttrell and keyboard player Herb Schildt left (for what would become a distinguished career in computer science). So they played the Barn in Ottumwa, Iowa, Vogues in Indianapolis, and even the Dew Drop Inn, Danville, Illinois. They got a few arena shows in this period, including several dates with Head East in 1979 and 1980. (Anybody who grew up rockin’ in the Midwest during the late 70s understands how big a deal it would have been to see those two bands together.)

There has been a working edition of Starcastle in recent years, although founding member Gary Strater died in 2004. An album the band had been working on before Strater’s death was released in 2006, and their 70s albums were remastered in 2011. Lately, the band has included Oliver Wakeman on keyboards, son of former Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman, thereby closing a circle that opened with the Starcastle’s Yes-inspired prog-rock so many years ago.

3 thoughts on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Zelig

    1. jb

      I remember seeing them at Sno-Din in what must have been the winter of either 1979 or ’80, when they were booked as a last-minute replacement for somebody.

  1. porky

    The studio where they recorded their first album is about three miles from where I type this, the cornfields of South Pekin, Illinois. An odd trip from there to Roy Thomas Baker….

    My pals and I repeatedly saw a band, Roadmaster, as an opening act. It got to be an in-joke among us.

    My sister lived in Danville, Illinois and trust me, when your tour book says “Dew Drop Inn, Danville, IL” it’s time to hang it up and say “it’s been fun.”

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