Veteran Rock Groups Bring Dj Vu To the Summer Concert Scene
If Rip van Winkle were to wake up during a rock-and-roll concert this summer, chances are he'd cheerfully sing along. Then he'd stroke his beard and wonder: "How can hair grow so long, so fast?"
Time, it seems, has stood still on the American rock-concert landscape. This summer, tour promoters have once again built a stairway to the 1960s and '70s, and the song remains the same.
It's the revival of classic rock, and the senior citizens of rock-and-roll are on a roll - thanks to the wealth and loyalty of baby boomers, the curiosity of generation X, and a marketing approach of putting many acts on one bill.
"You can close your eyes and imagine that the last 20 years never took place," Bob Rollson said after a recent Kiss concert at Boston's FleetCenter, which saw a curious mixture of generations. "I'm here with my six high school buddies. It's like time travel."
Seemingly every rocker from two decades ago is on the road again. Bob Seger, for instance, is on his first tour in many years. Or, there are perennial acts like the Allman Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash - bands that have parked their buses at two Woodstocks and rocked through five US presidents.
It's a similar scenario on the pop circuit, which, as usual, is staging a vintage-act bonanza. Neil Diamond, Harry Belafonte, Englebert Humperdinck, and even Tony Bennett are touring.
"It's not an overnight revival or a fad," says Danny Zelisko, a Phoenix-based concert promoter, since veteran acts have almost made a tradition of touring, especially in summer. But Mr. Zelisko admits that sounds from the past are echoing at amphitheaters as often as a Frank Sinatra tune from a Hoboken, N.J jukebox.
Touring versus videos
Music critics attribute this revival to the solid fan loyalty the veteran acts have built through years of touring. In contrast, they say, MTV-era bands have claimed their fame mostly through music videos.
Besides, rock's road warriors have other things going for them as well. "The purchasing power of the baby boomers is a major factor," Zelisko says. "They've got the money and the will to spend."
For years veteran roadies have known that for a fact. Now others are finding it out. A number of old-time bands are coming out of the woodwork to partake of the wealth of baby boomers, like the Eagles, Bob Seger, and Kiss.
For instance, the Eagles were the hottest act last year, grossing $63 million. This year, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band tour was the second biggest draw with $26.3 million. And here are the numbers on Kiss's unfinished tour: Forty-seven minutes to sell out 38,000 tickets for Detroit's Tiger Stadium and less than an hour to sell out four concerts at New York's Madison Square Garden.
"Perhaps this is daylight robbery, but who cares," Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten said after his band regrouped for their first tour in almost 20 years - without much success.
But people do care how they spend their money. "Bands don't have the same appeal as the Salvation Army during Christmastime," Mr. Rollson, the Kiss concertgoer, says. "I can live with a few [returning bands], not all."
While some bands are cashing in on nostalgia, others are doing it through adjustment: learning to live and play with others.
"With so many bands around, acts have to compete hard for media time and pocketbooks of fans," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the leading concert-industry magazine, Pollstar. "They [old bands] are also competing with new acts like the Cranberries and Hootie and the Blowfish who have an active teenage following."
What concert promoters are doing is serving up "boomerfest" value packs. Often, two, three, or more acts are packaged together for variety's sake as well as for box-office stakes.
Steve Miller is touring with Pat Benatar; Foreigner with Peter Frampton and REO Speedwagon; Cheap Trick and Boston; Styx and Kansas; Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Doobie Brothers. Even the "living dead," the remaining members of the Grateful Dead, has Los Lobos and Hot Tuna for support.
Bands are also reshuffling their arrangements - again, for variety's sake as well as box-office stakes. Last year Benatar toured with REO and Miller with the Doobies. Neither worked.
Not only has the bill changed in recent times, but also the stage. A shift from stadiums to amphitheaters has breathed new life into old-time bands.
"Bands are finding it an incredibly difficult thing to sustain their popularity to fill a stadium," Zelisko says. "That's why acts have moved to amphitheaters, which are creating a soft-ticket environment along with many offers, discounts, and promotions."
Former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart's 31-city Furthur Festival tour, which ended Aug. 4, had 30 stops at amphitheaters. (See story, page 13.) Last summer, the Grateful Dead was the only stadium act on the road nationally. This year there are none.
Does it signal the end of the stadium era? Some say no; others say almost.
For the last two years, the few attractions capable of playing stadiums took time off to work on their golf games while some others like Bruce Springsteen elected to play non-stadium venues, exchanging stadium anonymity for amphitheater intimacy.
In contrast, 1994 was a watershed year for the concert business. The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, and the Grateful Dead did stadium tours for an industry record of $1.4 billion.
Next year, the Rolling Stones plan to hit the road and the stadiums; so say the U2. But such tours are becoming rare. Going by their history, Pink Floyd could tour somewhere around 2000.
"It's a little troubling for the industry, but no cause for alarm," Mr. Bongiovanni says. "Amphitheaters will be just as fine for the business."