(Pictured: Gary Strater and Steve Hagler of Starcastle, on stage in 1977.)
I recently came across a thing that I wrote in 2009, after digging into the now-defunct tour history page for the group Starcastle, the central Illinois prog-rock band I’ve mentioned here many times. It painted an interesting picture of the life of a hard-working band that made it to the B-list and became modestly successful, until they weren’t anymore. Here’s a bit of that, slightly edited.
. . . . 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. . . . In January 1976, 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. Starcastle had released two albums in 1977, Fountains of Light in January and Citadel in October. . . .
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. (Schildt would go on to a distinguished career in computer science.) So they played the Barn in Ottumwa, Iowa, Vogues in Indianapolis, and even the Dew Drop Inn in Danville, Illinois. They got a few arena shows in this period, including several dates with Head East in 1979 and 1980.
At some point in 1980 or ’81, Starcastle was back at my college, recruited at the last minute to replace another act that had canceled its appearance at the annual Homecoming concert. But that show wasn’t on the tour history page. And although there’s been a working edition of Starcastle in recent years, by 1980, they were pretty much history themselves.
In the 70s, it was possible for a band like Starcastle to make a perfectly acceptable living in bars and at colleges, by professionally filling 45 minutes at the start of someone else’s arena show, and maybe, every once in a while, headlining an arena show themselves. I am not sure there’s a place for that kind of act anymore, or if that kind of act even exists, the kind of act whose manager might say to the promoter handling Kansas, “The guys can’t open Saturday night because they’ve got a bar gig in Mattoon, but you can put ’em down for Sunday.”