Friday, July 03, 2009

Past or present

Let's talk about the concept of the aging rock musician.

Back in the 1960's and 1970's, we never really thought about acts that would be playing 30 and 40 years in the future. We all sort of figured once a band had its moment or two, it would slowly disappear into the mist. Las Vegas? Hah.

Clearly, that was wrong. Take a look at the concert listings these days and it's an exercise in nostalgia. I saw America listed as playing a free show at Artpark in Lewiston last week. I saw that band perform at the Syracuse state fairgrounds in September of 1975, along with the Beach Boys, the Doobie Brothers, and Jefferson Starship, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the Stanky Brown group.

The aging process for musicians, though, is full of trap doors. Yes, a band can play the same songs over and over again to baby boomers and make a decent living in the process. It can also try to stay relevant by writing and recording new songs -- no easy task with shifting audience tastes. "Hope I die before I get old," indeed.

Which brings us to Todd Rundgren's show in Buffalo on Wednesday night.

Rundgren had a bunch of hits in the Seventies. He's been a producer for some top acts over the years, and is still churning out new music. Good for him.

However, he played for two hours on Wednesday. Care to guess how many songs I had heard before? One, "Real Man." No "Can We Still Be Friends?", no "Hello, It's Me," no "Road to Utopia." And so on. What's more, the music Rundgren offered was pretty loud. The man can play an electric guitar, but his songs have a different style than they did 35 years ago.

Two moments from previous concerts came back to me during the course of the night. One was Billy Joel, who at some point once said during a show when he was about to play a new song, "I know you are saying, 'Yeah, that's cool, but what about the old stuff?' Don't worry, we have it all timed for maximum effect." And then there was the time the Who played a show consisting of Quadrophenia and a handful of other hits. It sure felt like an exercise in cashing in on old popularity and nothing more.

I heard from two other people around my age at the Rundgren show. One was impressed by his virtuosity with the guitar. The other had enough of unfamiliar, loud songs and a crowded hot club, and walked out early.

It's not easy to keep everyone happy, and it sure is tough to find that middle ground. I wouldn't want to be stuck playing "Nights in White Satin" 150 times a year in order to pay the bills, as members of the Moody Blues are no doubt doing. But I wouldn't want to turn my back on my most productive and popular period either.

Maybe that's one of the reasons why Bruce Springsteen has my admiration and respect in such matters. Yes, he has to play "Badlands" and "Born to Run" at every show with the E Street Band, but he also is writing new music and tries to mix up the set list as much as possible. Springsteen even played "Pretty Woman" Thursday night in Munich as a request.

Todd, I appreciate your efforts to grow. But don't forget what got us there, either.

1 comment:

Becky said...

Even back in the day ongoing bands had a hard time introducing a new album. Jethro Tull used to perform the newest album and then do a lengthy encore of the previous one.

When Journey was at Sheas many years ago they couldn't get past the audience chanting "Lights" between every early song, even though that wasn't supposed to be their focus that night. They gave up and went with the flow.