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Groups try musical chairs

Band-jumping leads to some bright, sometimes unorthodox, pairings.

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2009

Middle age is an inevitable job hazard most applicants for the role of rock star never think they'll face.

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But when they do, they have one clear choice: Parody your former self on reality television and the nostalgia circuit or stay relevant with challenging new collaborations that may be creatively rejuvenating and, if the timing is right, result in a few new hits.

This summer's concert season is stocked with these kinds of unexpected partnerships between musicians from alternate worlds – whether it's Tinted Windows, a new pop band featuring members of The Smashing Pumpkins and Hanson; Dead Weather, featuring members of The White Stripes and Queens of the Stone Age; or Chickenfoot, a rock band roster that includes players from Van Halen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

There are also entire tour packages featuring unlikely combinations on the same bill – Fall Out Boy and 50 Cent, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby – that are designed to drive up ticket sales by casting the widest net, a necessity in a recession when entertainment may take a back seat to mortgage payments and groceries.

"I think artists are definitely looking for something special for their fans. In this economy, that is really appreciated," says Paola Palazzo, senior director of talent for Nederlander Concerts, one of the largest venue operators in the United States. Ms. Palazzo said that in her industry concert promoters, artist managers, and venue operators are actively working together to come up with value-added bills so consumers can feel more confident spending their leisure money.

"I think everyone is being smart this summer and pricing shows so fans can still come out and see their favorite artists," she says.

The unorthodox matchup that set the tone for this year is the one that paired former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant with neo-bluegrass singer and fiddle player Alison Krauss. Their tour from last year was the summer's most anticipated ticket and was voted "most creative tour package" by the concert industry magazine Pollstar. And their album resulted in five Grammy awards, including record of the year and album of the year.

Yet despite the project's commercial rewards, it originated from an artistic leap of faith. After playing two reunion shows in London, Plant was under pressure to launch a Led Zeppelin reunion world tour, which was expected to smash box office records. But instead, he opted for playing vintage country, folk, and blues tunes with Krauss in mid-size theaters – a choice that yielded less revenue than would a blockbuster reunion tour, but ultimately generated something more valuable: artistic relevance.