On the road...again
Veteran rockers from Brian Wilson to Yes talk about how they keep it fresh after decades on tour
If you're surprised that long-in-the-tooth rockers like The Rolling Stones and The Who are out on tour again, then perhaps you don't know this fact about the concert industry: It's fueled by groups that were around long before Britney Spears could say "Oops!"
Slickly marketed teen idols may dominate the airwaves and MTV, but it's the veterans who bring in the big money on tour. Talk to veteran musicians about what it's like being on tour decades after their careers began, and the answers are as varied as Mick Jagger's facial expressions.
Some like performing their popular hits and some can't stand it. Some may end up like B.B. King and tour into their golden years; some don't like being away from their kids. And some are surprised by their longevity in the business.
"We didn't really plan to have such a long career," says Chris Squire, bass player for Yes, which first released an album in 1969. "When we started, the Beatles' career was visible to the public from 1963 until they did their last album in '69. It was a six-year career, and it seemed like a long [one]. We hoped we could match that."
Many artists say they are musicians for life, so touring doesn't stop when they start losing their hair or, in some cases, their ability to hit the high notes. In fact, some keep track of their attendance like athletes do.
"I'm the Cal Ripken of the group. I've never missed a show," jokes Simon Kirke, the drummer for Bad Company, a three-decade-old group. "Right now, I love touring. I'm home for nine months of the year, and I'm touring for three, so it's a release for me, it's a release for the family, because I get all crotchety and squirrely. So it's a good balance."
Even if veterans wanted to quit, fans and the concert industry might not let them. Live performances by bands like The Eagles and Aerosmith regularly fill arenas with fans nostalgic for the sound of rock's roots.
In the first half of 2002, the three most lucrative music tours were Paul McCartney; Elton John/Billy Joel; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And veteran rockers occupy many of the slots on the list of top-grossing concert tours in North America (see chart), with the Rolling Stones, who kicked off their 40th-anniversary tour this week, leading the way, according to concert-industry magazine Pollstar. One reason vets rake in the revenue is that their baby-boomer fans can afford to pay upwards of $100 a ticket, far more than younger groups, who have to rely on teen allowances.
That money is attractive not only to concert promoters but to the musicians themselves, some of whom no longer have big record contracts or have been banished to classic-rock radio stations. Touring offers them an opportunity to earn a living and reach their fans.
Being on the road isn't always easy, especially for parents. "It's hard when you're leaving and the kids start crying that's a very difficult emotional scenario for me," says Bruce Hornsby.
But Hornsby, like others, says performing live is the best part. "Most everything about the music business other than the music is fairly inane," he says. "Playing the music for people who appreciate it, that's a beautiful situation."
That's what Beach Boy Brian Wilson experienced on a recent Friday night in Boston, where hundreds of fans turned out to hear him perform.
The pop genius has reemerged in recent years after being out of the public eye for decades dealing with a nervous breakdown and drug use. These days, he needs a little prompting from his bandmates while on stage, but his latest tour is garnering breathless reviews from fans. "I thought he was fantastic. He's not phoning it in," says Nina Schuessler of Harwich, Mass. "It's great to see him healthy."
Wilson wasn't sure he would be well received when he returned. "But I was surprised, I was very surprised ... by the standing ovations," he said in a recent phone interview.
He doesn't tire of singing Beach Boy classics, he says, including all the songs from the critically acclaimed 1966 album, "Pet Sounds." "It takes me all the way back to the original recording sessions," he explains.
But other musicians prefer that the song not remain the same. Mr. Hornsby, for instance, experiments with new arrangements.
"We have three or four different ways of playing "Way It Is." We play "Way It Is" bluegrass. We've played it as a jazz waltz sometimes," he says.
Hornsby sometimes does a concert without a single hit. He prefers not to accommodate the nostalgia trip some fans want to take. "I've, for a really long time, refused to cater to that desire, because it's so unmusical, so uncreative to me," he says. "I feel if I had just catered to that, I would not have an audience now."
As he sees it, if you live by your hits, you may die by them, because audiences can be fickle. "There's one thing worse than not having hits," he adds, "and that's having hits that you hate. Everyone wants you to play them."
Paul Rodgers, lead singer for Bad Company, is less reluctant to give in to fans' nostalgia. He often lets the audience take over the singing on hits like "Rock and Roll Fantasy" and "Can't Get Enough." "One of the nice things about the longevity of the material is that people have had a chance to really learn the songs," he says.
Mr. Squire of Yes says his group often saves its classics, like "Roundabout," for the encore. "By the time you get to the end of a show, it's not painful at all."
It would be different if bands had to play the same songs for the same audience every night, notes Bad Company's Kirke. But they get a different reaction in each town. "The audience revitalizes the song," he says.
That doesn't mean musicians don't try new material, which is sometimes followed by polite applause.
"It's a risk," playing new songs, says Kirke, "But we like to stick our necks out every once in a while."
Not that anyone is going to stop them. Experienced musicians fuel the concert industry, so much so that there is brow-furrowing about what will happen when the veterans many of whom are in their 50s decide to stay home. "It's a huge concern to the industry, and we don't have an answer to it," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar.
They may have to come up with a solution soon, since some veterans say they're eyeing the exit. "You can [tour until you are 80] if you're a jazz player or if you're a blues player. But as a rock player, no," Kirke says. "I think 60's got to be the cutoff. We're lucky to be doing this in our early 50s."
When they look ahead, veterans aren't sure which, if any, of today's artists will be on the road in the decades to come. In many ways, the life span of a band has come full circle since the Beatles.
"Do I think these people will be around in 30 years time? I doubt it," Kirke says. "Don't get me wrong, there are some good groups out there," like No Doubt and songwriters Jewel and Alanis Morissette. "It's just it seems a lot more transient.... The life span of a group now seems to be about half a dozen years, and then that's it."
Staff writers Stephen Humphries and Amanda Paulson contributed to this report. To hear sound clips from the interview with Chris Squire of Yes, view this article at www.csmonitor.com.