Are singers or songs most important for a tour?

When iconic frontmen (or frontwomen) are replaced, are they still the same bands? More important, will fans remain loyal and keep buying tickets?

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File
Fleetwood Mac band members (from l.) Stevie Nicks, John McVie, Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham, and Mick Fleetwood appear at the 2018 MusiCares Person of the Year tribute in New York on Jan. 26.

OK, be honest. Would there be any satisfaction in seeing the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger? Would you fork over big bucks to see U2 minus Bono? If Debbie Harry were missing, would Blondie still be Blondie? And who could survive without Roger Daltrey? I mean Who?

As classic rock and pop bands age, they inevitably lose members. Some of those original members are so indelibly identified with their groups that they seem to be the band itself. Two such “heritage bands,” Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, both with about a half-century of recordmaking and touring behind them, are or will be on the road with brand-new members to seemingly attempt to ensure they’ll keep on rocking into the future. But when iconic frontmen (or frontwomen) are replaced, are they still the same bands? More important, will fans remain loyal and keep buying tickets?

In other words, is it the singers or the songs that keep fans coming back?

The ultimate test case is a band that has withstood more than a half-century of personnel changes and shape-shifting and is once again touring the world this fall and winter with yet another set of new members. Fleetwood Mac began in London in 1967 and will be hitting the stage this month with its two namesake founders, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, plus twirling gypsy frontwoman Stevie Nicks and longtime in-and-out-again pianist Christine McVie, as well as freshmen recruits Neil Finn (who has also been a member of groups including Split Enz and Crowded House) and guitarist Mike Campbell, formerly of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. These two top-flight musicians were recruited to replace one band icon, Mac veteran Lindsey Buckingham, who left the band this past April. Finn is a respected pop singer with a wide range and should have little trouble fitting right into the Fleetwood vocal mix. He’s also an accomplished songwriter, which the band will need since Buckingham was one of the group’s most prolific tunesmiths.

A greater challenge awaits Tom Petty’s former guitar ace Campbell, who faces the daunting task of replicating Buckingham’s eccentric and dexterously complex guitar work. Campbell’s specialty is rootsy, bluesy rock, so it will be interesting to see if Fleetwood and McVie’s original blues orientation seeps back into the new live performances and any new records to come.

Finn and Campbell will be the 17th and 18th members of the Fleetwood Mac genealogy. Mick Fleetwood said in a press release, “We jammed with Mike and Neil and the chemistry really worked.... We know we have something new, yet it’s got the unmistakable Mac sound.”

The Mac’s latest world tour officially kicks off Oct. 3 in Tulsa, Okla. Will fans blanch at a Buckingham-less Fleetwood Mac? If not, why do fans still come out to see these bands, even though they’re missing key members?

“With very rare exceptions, I think it’s all about the songs, not so much the singers,” music critic Joan Anderman says of fans choosing to attend these shows. “It’s why these ‘heritage’ tours are so successful. Fans are hungry for the familiar old feeling this music evokes in them.” 

However, music journalist and author Tim Riley thinks it can tip both ways. “Some songs are good enough that they can carry even a mediocre singer,” he says. Then again, “Some singers are so good they could sing the phone book.”

The Eagles, a group that could provide a model for older bands bringing in new members, are currently on tour. When co-founder and singer Glenn Frey died in 2016, his partner Don Henley was adamant that the band was finished. But the next year, Frey’s son Deacon and country singer, songwriter, and guitar virtuoso Vince Gill joined the band for the Classic West and Classic East festivals, and the group then embarked on a world tour this past spring. With talent like that and a nearly unrivaled song catalog, the future looks good for the Eagles and their legions of fans.

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