The Many Musical Moods of Todd Rundgren

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Todd Rundgren today – eccentric, but well-dressed! Photo by Brian Callan.

The era of the Great Trump Protest Songs has not yet materialized. However, Todd Rundgren – along with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen – were early out of the gate with the satiric “Tin Foil Hat” off Rundgren’s new album, White Knight.

The jazzy-as-hell tune makes a comparison between our Commander in Chief with the silver chapeau popular (at least in pop culture) with paranoid conspiracy nuts who feel the chapeau will prevent their minds from being read.

Lyrical references include a man coming down an escalator with a girl “east of here” who’s “tweeting like a teenage girl,” along with phrases like “alternative facts,” “drain the swamp,” “tiny little hands,” “make the country greater,” and “YUGE!”

But, given all that has happened since the song’s May release, Rundgren says he could easily rewrite the song with all new words again. And again.

“We could do updates every week!” he laughs, before discussion the tune’s genesis. “The first thing Donald and I did was sit down and write down all the bizarre things that have been said by or about him, then tried to make them rhyme. It was really such an embarrassment of riches. It almost wrote itself!”

White Knight also includes plenty of other collaborations with people like Daryl Hall, Joe Walsh, Joe Satriani, Bettye Lavette, and other singers and rappers in addition to Rundgren-only tunes. And while he didn’t get everyone on his wish list, it was close.

“Most of the artists I contacted were open to doing some collaboration. But actually getting it done was easier said! You have to catch them at the right moment and get them to focus,” he offers.

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Todd Rundgren in 1978 when “Hello, It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light” made him a soft rock radio staple. Photo by Mitchell Weinstock/Wiki Commons.

“Often, I would have an artist in mind and they were interested in composing or co-composing. But if not, I came up with an idea for them. But they were mostly not bilateral situations. In Daryl’s song, I left spaces for him to fill in. Donald’s song was the only track where we were in the same place at the same time.”

Another sharp-edged tune, “Buy My T,” posits the wholly factual situation that a musician can make more selling T-shirts than records. Or, as he calls the former, “cotton goodies” up to size 5XL and available in limited editions. And if they’re sold out at the show? Just buy it online.

“The reality is that for a lot of artists, performing is a central part of their career, and then merchandising they sell at the shows to a captive audience,” Rundgren says. “The so-called record business that everyone thinks in the center part is more fringe exploitation!”

Most recently, Rundgren was on the road this fall as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. The current All-Starrs have been together intact since 2012, and also include Gregg Rolie (Santana), Steve Lukather (Toto), and Richard Page (Mr. Mister). He says that the joke among the group is that they are rapidly approaching a milestone of playing Beatles songs longer than the Beatles themselves did.

It’s been a busy year for Todd.  Rundgren began 2017 with a solo tour in the spring. Then the summer saw him as the middle act in “Yestival,” sandwiched between opening act Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy and headliners Yes. This made the show something of a Prog Rock dream (or…wet dream) bill. Rundgren was interviewed by Dave Weigel for the reporter’s recent book on the history of the genre and doesn’t seem to take issue with the term.

“I think ‘Prog Rock’ does indicate certain things. I’ve done a few of these shows with Yes and Carl Palmer, and one thing you can definitely say is…there’s a LOT of fast playing and a lot of notes! That’s one aspect,” Rundgren laughs. “The other is sort of unusual subject matter from the purely philosophical to tales of dwarves and dragons. Prog Rock is the music that goes with ‘Game of Thrones!’ But you have to have chops and play intricately. And Prog Rock does have [very] dedicated fans.”

Todd Rundgren has long been an enthusiastic student of and performer with a deep knowledge and usage of technology, computers, and synthesizers in his music. He says this came from childhood, when this son of a DuPont engineer would tinker with scientific experiments and home radio kits. At one point, he was so heavily into robots that he planned on building his own as sort of a “personal companion.”

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Todd Rundgren: For Your Crooning Pleasures. Photo by Todd Callan.

“Everyone is at some point in the continuum of technophobia. There are those who are scared of things because they seem difficult or learn, and then I’m at the other end where I have a real interest in it. And that can turn into a fixation!” he says.

“So it didn’t seem as challenging to me maybe as other people. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily adopt the latest technology as soon as it is new. I have to figure out what works best for me. Like I remained analog when everyone else was going digital, then switched when it was convenient and dependable enough.”

One thing Rundgren says technology has killed is his offers of work as a record producer. Or for any producer. That’s not a small thing given that Rundgren has over the years guided albums from behind the glass for artists as diverse as the Band, the New York Dolls, Badfinger, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, XTC, the Tubes, and Meat Loaf (that would be Bat Out of Hell. It has sold a few copies over the years).

“I’m no longer the gatekeeper to the studio for musicians,” he offers. “The studio is their bedroom now. And you don’t have to jump through as many hurdles to get signed. They would have never seen someone like [EDM DJ] Skrillex coming.”

Finally, there’s the matter of a certain pyramid-shaped building in Cleveland that many believe should have a place for Todd Rundgren. But while he’s often on short lists of musicians who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but aren’t, there’s at least one person not losing any sleep over the situation: Todd Rundgren.

“It’s more about the fans, for them it would be some sort of vindication. For me, it doesn’t matter at all. I always maintain that these institutions that are formed during your lifetime, you don’t have the same respect for them,” he says, before adding that even the title “Rock and Roll” for the institution is a misnomer.

“Rock and roll essentially died when Elvis got back from the army and started singing with choirs and stuff. Anything after that has been an evolution of the foundation of rock and roll, from Chuck Berry. And if there was something true about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Madonna would never be in it.”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

 

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Tom Johnston Helps Keep the Doobie Brothers Train Runnin’

The three principal Doobies today: John McFee, Tom Johnston, and Patrick Simmons. Photo by Andrew Macpherson/Courtesy of the Doobie Brothers.

Released as a single in the summer of 1973, “China Grove” became one of the biggest and most recognizable hits for The Doobie Brothers. The tune about the “sleeply little town down around San Antone” with its preacher and teacher and gossipy locals eventually hit #15 on the Billboard singles chart.

But it wasn’t until a bit later during a stop in Houston that writer/singer Tom Johnston got an unexpected shock about the song.

“It was in Houston that I first found out that China Grove was a real town – and that was from a cab driver!” Johnston laughs. “He asked how did I know about the place to write about it, and I said ‘what do you mean? I made that up.’ When he said it was real, I said “you’ve got to be kidding.’”

In the time since, Johnston figures that perhaps in the early ‘70s when the band was “touring in a Winnebago” and driving in I-10 to or from a gig in San Antonio did he maybe see a road sign that lodged in his memory. After Little Feat’s Billy Payne played a keyboard riff and Johnston started adding words, he says the song “just kind of all fell together.” Though he adds that there is also a China Grove in North Carolina!

Audiences on their recent summer tour with Chicago  heard that tune, along with other warhorses like “Jesus is Just Alright,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Long Train Runnin’” “The Doctor,” “Black Water” (sung by fellow Doobie Patrick Simmons) and likely the sole Michael McDonald vocalist-era tune they usually perform, “Takin’ It To the Streets.

The Doobie Brothers in 1974: Keith Knudsen, Tiran Porter, Patrick Simmons, Tom Johnston (striped shirt) and John Hartman. Photo from Wiki Commons/International Artists Agency.

Of course, audiences also heard “Listen to the Music,” the band’s first hit from 1972 that went to #11 and is their usual set-closer. Johnston says that he had no idea out of all their songs, this one would become more than just a hit, but a real classic rock anthem.

“That’s the one where the audience really sings along. It was the first song that helped us really launch our career and got us on the radio. At the time, I didn’t think it was going to be anything really special,” he says. “I was just glad to be on the radio! I never thought that it would become an anthem. I don’t think [any performer] really knows that when they’re writing it. But it’s resonated over the years with a lot of people.”

But he’s quick to add that, despite the song’s good time vibe, there is a serious message with it. “It’s really about world leaders and trying to have them get along through music rather than language, because language wasn’t getting anything done,” he offers. “That was during the era of the Vietnam War, and it still applies today.”

As for the Doobies’ tour mates, he has nothing but effusive praise. “I’ve always enjoyed touring with those guys in Chicago. It’s great music that I’ve been listening to since even before I joined the Doobie Brothers. And they’re fun to work with,” Johnston says.

As to if there is any difference to the band in playing a co-headlining summer outdoor show vs. an indoor headlining show, he says it’s only different in the number of people in the audience. “Outside it could be 15-20,000 people, but in terms of the music, it’s pretty much the same. You play the best that you can and hope that people respond. That’s our job.”

The band’s last studio record was 2014’s Southbound, which found the band teaming with some of country’s hottest artists like Zac Brown, Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, and Toby Keith to reimagine some of the biggest Doobie Brothers songs. Johnston says that, while they weren’t always in the same studio at the same time with their collaborators, the whole experience “was a gas” and he had “no idea” that their music was beloved by those on the country side of things.

Tom Johnston looks toward the band’s future. Photo courtesy of the Doobie Brothers.

The band’s current lineup includes co-founders Johnston and singer/guitarist Patrick Simmons, along with multi-instrumentalist, vocalist John McFee, who joined in 1979. Those three are referred to as “principal” members of the band (and the only ones featured in official photographs). The group is rounded out by ex-Little Feat keyboardist Billy Payne, saxophonist Marc Russo, drummer Ed Toth, and bassist John Cowan.

In addition to their last tour, the Doobies had a couple of big gigs as part of the “Classic East” and “Classic West” events. The two-day mega concerts last July featured the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Journey,  and Earth, Wind & Fire over two nights in Los Angeles and New York.

Johnston said before those shows that the band would have to do a sort of hit and run, as the night before The Classic West LA they were in Indiana, and right after they played the gig they will had to fly off to Detroit for their show the next night (though he did hope to catch at least some of Steely Dan’s set). They had a similar situation for their Classic East NY show later that month.

Not surprisingly, many of the acts on the bill are under the management of record industry legend Irving Azoff, who the Doobies hired a couple of years ago. Johnston – and an awful lot of Doobie Brothers fans – hope that their high-profile champion could finally help put them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as they are currently one of the most egregious exemptions from the list of inductees.

“Yeah…we have no control over that! It’s kind of a political thing. I’m not sure the inductions are so much about music,” he sums up. “But we have new management, and hopefully things will head in that direction!”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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Chicago’s Robert Lamm Knows What Time It Is

Robert Lamm of Chicago and his magical keytar!

Singer/keyboardist Robert Lamm has been part of a particular band of brothers for decades as Chicago, the group he co-founded, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

But this past summer during the band’s tour with co-headliners the Doobie Brothers and former Eagle Don Felder, he was inducted into another elite group: The Songwriters Hall of Fame, going in with a class that also includes his Chicago bandmate/trombonist James Pankow.

The pair found out about the honor last year, about the same time they were notified of the band’s (long) overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though Lamm’s reaction is a bit surprising.

“I’m a little ambivalent about it to be honest. I’m flattered, I never thought it would be bestowed on me. Some of the writers of the greatest American songs like Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Burt Bacharach are in there,” Lamm offers. “But to a large degree, it’s for the very earliest work I did on the first dozen or songs I composed for Chicago. That was a long time ago. I didn’t know what I was doing then, but I know what I’m doing now!”

Still, it’s hard to argue when some of the band’s Lemm-penned (and usually sang) tunes include classic rock and band staples like “Saturday in the Park,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” “Beginnings,” “Questions 67 & 68”, “Dialogue (Parts I and II),” “Another Rainy Day in New York City,” and “Harry Truman.”

But it’s another numerically-inclined song – with its title literally inspired by the time of the morning that Lamm wrote it – that has been such a calling card that the band recorded it twice: “25 or 6 to 4.”

Lamm says there was on incident shortly after the tune came out that made him think it was something bigger than just a hit. “I do remember going to a dinner party a couple of years after it came out, and Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson were there and another big performer whose name I can’t remember, and they were all talking about the song,” Lamm says. “That’s when I realized there was something [extra] it. And it’s been sampled a number of times by hip hop and rap artists and been in movies. So that all adds up to it having more impact than I ever expected.”

For years, the three most egregious exclusions from the Rock and Roll Hall were Yes, Deep Purple, and Chicago. With all three of those acts entering in the past two years, Lamm’s frequent tour mates in the Doobie Brothers now occupy that short list.

Old Days with Classic Chicago: Robert Lamm, Danny Seraphine, Lee Loughnane, Walt Parazadier, James Pankow, Peter Cetera, and TErry Kath. Photo courtesy of http://www.chicago-the-band.com

“Their time will come, I know it,” Lamm says. “I love those guys, and we’ve worked with them a lot, we have a long history. Our tours are very successful and are really a joyous event. It’s music that has meant so much to multiple generations. And the staying power of their music along with ours performed in one evening is something. And they are professionals.”

For their last tour, the band wasn’t just tripping down memory lane. The set list included “a nod to EDM music,” as he notes in recent years an older remixed Chicago track (“Street Player”) has become an unlikely dance club hit.

Also out this year was a Steven Wilson remixed-effort on Chicago II from 1970. The white-hot Prog-leaning Wilson has done similar work for Jethro Tull reissues, and has a solo career along with his band Porcupine Tree. Lamm adds that the band is contemplating playing that entire double album in concert down the road.

“I never thought that it could sound better than the original release, but it’s really something very different, and it’s great what he’s done,” Lamm says. “I haven’t listened to any of those songs in decades!”

In fact, there has been so much new activity in the Chicago story recently, that the ending of last year’s career-spanning CNN documentary, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago had to be continually re-edited.

hicago in 2017: Keith Howland, Lee Loughnane, Lou Pardini, James Pankow, Robert Lamm, Walfredo Reyes, Jr., Jeff Coffey, Ray Herrmann, and Tris Imbolden (Walt Parazadier not pictured). Photo courtesy of Chicago.

Lamm was happy with the result, though it was not without controversy in that it was produced by the son of a current bandmember. Ousted original drummer Danny Seraphine says he wasn’t represented well, and it did not include reflections from former singer/bassist Peter Cetera or original producer/manager James William Guercio (both declined to participate in the project).

He’s also celebrating the release of Time Chill, a retrospective anthology of his solo career since the early ‘90s with some unreleased and remixed material. So, while Lamm and Chicago are happy to revisit their past for big audiences on tour, they are not beholden to it.

“We’re not thinking about the 50 years behind us,” Lamm sums up. “We’re thinking about what’s ahead and all the new projects we are going to attempt!”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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My WAR Biography is Out Today!

 

 

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MCA Records Publicity Photo, 1977

 

Three and a half years in the making, my first book, Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR is out today!

Order it or find out more info HERE.

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Ann Wilson’s Heart of Rock and Roll

 

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Ann Wilson today. (Photo courtesy of MSO PR)

 

More than four decades into her career as one of rock’s premier and most distinctive vocalists, Ann Wilson recently wrapped up she’s never attempted before: an extended solo tour.

“We have a very lean, mean band, nothing extra. Great musicians that can go big or gentle, and a full video program for the whole two hour show,” she says enthusiastically. Of course, her main gig since the mid-‘70s has been co-leading the band Heart with sister/guitarist/co-writer Nancy (sidetrips with the Lovemongers and The Ann Wilson Thing! Notwithstanding).

 

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Photo by Jess Griffin/Courtesy of MSO PR

 

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, Heart racked up an instantly recognizable string of hard rock hits in the ‘70s (“Crazy on You,” “Barracuda,” “Magic Man,” “Straight On”) and enjoyed even greater success in the ‘80s with anthemic power ballads (“What About Love?” “Never” “These Dreams,” “Alone”).

But – as even non-Heart fans know by now – plans for both Ann’s solo tour and Nancy’s new group, Roadcase Royale, weren’t exactly percolating a little over a year ago, or even thought about. That’s because in one of the most jarring recent music stories, at the moment the Wilson sisters are estranged – very estranged.

In a nutshell, there was an incident last year at a show involving a tour bus, a dog, and an intense physical altercation between Ann’s new husband and Nancy’s twin 16-year-old boys. It opened a gaping rift between the siblings usually thought of as perhaps the closest personally and professionally in all of music.

 

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Ann and Nancy Wilson in the ’70s (www.heart-music.com

 

Some month ago, Rolling Stone did a comprehensive piece on the incident and its aftermath, tellingly telling the magazine that the group was no longer on a “temporary hiatus,” but an all-out “hiatus.”

Still, there is one positive outcome, and that Ann agrees it has forced both sisters to step outside of their boxes with their current projects

“We are definitely out of our comfort zone and for me, it’s fantastic fresh, and liberating. I can’t say anything negative about it – except for the money!” Wilson says. “But it’s really good for me, and I’m sure for Nancy.”

Surprisingly, a gander at Ann Wilson’s current set lists show less than 25% are Heart songs – and they are “reimagined.” The rest includes new original tunes written in the last year and covers, a lot of covers.

Mainly from her own personal music faves like the Who (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”), Jimi Hendrix (“Manic Depression”), the Animals (“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”), Yes (“I’ve Seen All Good People”), Elvis Presley (“One Night”), Aretha Franklin (“Ain’t No Way”), and even the Black Crowes (“She Talks to Angels” – the lyrics of which she says she “really identifies” with).

But there’s nothing it seems from Ann Wilson’s biggest rock heroes – Led Zeppelin – a group for which she has been known to cover a song or two or three over the years.

“What I liked about them at first was Robert Plant,” she offers. “I had never seen a singer before who could be just as much female as male. It was a beautiful thing, very poetic. I thought I could sing that stuff, and I could.”

Perhaps the ultimate fangirl moment was when Ann and Nancy were chosen to perform ultimate Zep tune “Stairway to Heaven” in front of the surviving members themselves and a star-studded audience in 2013 when the band received their Kennedy Center Honors.

Beginning with just Ann’s voice and Nancy’s acoustic guitar, as the tune progresses they are eventually joined by a full band (including Zep progeny Jason Bonham on drums), an orchestra, a vocal ensemble, and then a whole damn full gospel choir.

“We couldn’t really see them from the stage, but it was pretty nerve-wracking. I mean, in addition to Led Zeppelin, you had President Obama and the first lady, Dustin Hoffman, and Stephen Colbert!” she says. “It was a very intense, famous audience.”

Portions of this article originally appeared on The Houston Press.

 

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Justin Hayward’s Days (and Nights) in White Satin

 

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Photo by Marta Szczesniak/Courtesy of Eagle Rock

Of all the hits that the Moody Blues have charted over the past 50+ years of existence, the one big calling card for the English band is probably “Nights in White Satin.” Atmospheric, classically orchestrated, mysterious, and featuring dreamy vocals by Justin Hayward, it’s not just a hit, but a classic rock anthem.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until recently that the singer and writer of the said 1967 tune really “got” it – despite that fact that he’s been performing it for decades.

“I was 19 going on 20 when I wrote it, and I had no idea what it was really about. I was at the end of one big love affair and starting another, and it was not meant to be a single,” Hayward says. “It was the opposite of what a single should be!”

And sure, what kind of pop hit has a spoken word poem (written by drummer Graeme Edge and recited by keyboardist Mike Pinder) smack dab in the middle? But then, Hayward opened his email one day and someone had sent him the 2010 cover version done by soul singer Bettye Lavette. And his entire world view changed.

“For the first time in my life, I understood the song, what it was supposed to be. Her version explained it,” Hayward says, his voice brimming with enthusiasm. “I have been singing it from the heart for a long time and every word meant something, but I hadn’t understood it because it was a collection of random thoughts. But the way she did it, it made sense. And I have the feeling that her version is better than ours!”

Hayward says it “touched his heart” that he later got an email from Lavette that read “Hello baby. Thanks for the song.”

On this solo tour, he’ll undoubtedly perform “Nights” and some other Moody Blues classics (which also include “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Question,” “The Voice,” “I’m Just a Singer [In a Rock and Roll Band],””Ride My See-Saw,” and “Your Wildest Dreams”).  But he’ll also dig into his surprisingly deep solo catalog, the best of which have been compiled into the CD All the Way (it also includes one new tune, “The Wind of Heaven”).

Most of this material is more quiet and introspective than his Moodies songs. On his recent solo tour, Hayward was accompanied onstage only by only Mike Dawes (guitar) and Julie Regins (keyboards/vocals).

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The Moody Blues arrive at Schipol Airport, The Netherlands, 1970: Mike Pinder, Graeme Edge, Justin Hayward, Ray Thomas, John Lodge. Photo by Clausule/Wiki Commons

“Over the years, I held a few things back from the Moodies that I thought were too personal or particular. Too much ‘me, me, me’ instead of ‘us, us, us.’” Hayward says. “And that represented some kind of pain or psychological dilemma in my life that needed to be expressed. I do things [on this tour] that don’t work inside the loud context of the Moody Blues.”

Leading off the CD is the original version of “Blue Guitar.” And while it later appeared on record in a different, highly-orchestrated version, this is the original mix done with members of 10cc. Long thought lost, it was recently located in a tape storage unit.

“I was overjoyed to find that. I knew it was good, in the original form and mix. But the record company didn’t want to credit 10cc, who weren’t on their label at the time,” Hayward explains. “So [10cc member] Graham Gouldman and I went to try and find that original Eric Stewart [also in 10cc] mix. It was unadulterated, clear, and brilliant.”

Hayward also cops to a bit of male musical bonding with Alberto Parodi, who mastered the track. “We sat like silly old men and held each other’s hands during the playback,” the singer notes. “Then again, he is Italian. And they are very emotional.”

Also on the CD is Hayward’s biggest solo hit, the enchanting “Forever Autumn.” While not written by Hayward, it was done for the 1978 concept album Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds. Though – as the singer explains in the liner notes – after he recorded it, he heard nothing more for a year, until he was informed by a record promotion man that it would be the single off the album! Hayward would reprise his version on several tours staging the story.

“Honestly, I had forgotten all about it. I did the song and we had a lovely day and then Jeff Wayne asked me back for another song and some backing vocals,” he says. When I tell Hayward that – as a 9-year-old – I was obsessed with the song and played my 45 single endless times, he’s momentarily speechless.

“That is really incredible you said that. Because after I recorded it, I went home and my wife heard it, and she said ‘What’s that all about? Who’s going to buy that?’ and I said ‘I don’t know, probably 9-year-old boys.’ So Bob, I finally met you!”

In the MTV era of the ‘80s, the Moody Blues had (like fellow ‘60s prog rockers Yes) something of a resurgence on the heels of much-played videos. In the case of the Moody Blues “Your Wildest Dreams” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere.”

The first clip shows the story of an English girl in the ‘60s who follows the “young” Moody Blues (actually actors) and then, years later, encounters the “current” band at a show.

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“Well, we had to do that. We were about 45 at the time, so we weren’t going to play younger versions of ourselves!” Hayward laughs.

“But I would have to say that was the happiest time that the group has had and in my life as well. I was straight and fully conscious and made sure I enjoyed every moment. And to have a hit record in the American charts and Germany and people recognize you from the video…that was great. But it lasts about three weeks and people move on!”

After the current solo tour winds up, there will be more activity with the Moody Blues, who also host their own cruise. But as with any band with a 50+ year (or even much less) history, there’s some drop off in membership.

The current version of the Moody Blues includes original drummer Graeme Edge, and classic lineup members Hayward and bassist John Lodge. When I spoke with Edge in 2011 he said that the band could not exist without the utterly distinctive vocals of Hayward, though the man who owns those pipes in question disagrees.

“Well…there’s always another kid that can come along and do those songs. Graeme and I love each other dearly, but I’ve seen so many bands where they got a new guy singing and just carried on!” he says.

Finally, the Moody Blues are usually on a short list of acts that are not currently in a certain Cleveland-based Hall of Fame, but many feel should be. And with the inclusion of more classic and prog rock bands in recent years (Chicago, Yes, Electric Light Orchestra, Deep Purple), might it be time for the Moody Blues?

“I don’t’ care,” Hayward offers. “It doesn’t mean anything in my life, but it does to the American fans. In Europe, it doesn’t even make it to the news channel. But it must be tough for the fans. I hope it happens for them one day.”

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Houston Press.

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Gregg Rollie’s Journey Back to Santana

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The boys in the reconstituted Santana: Benny Rietveld (bass), Michael Shrieve (drums), Gregg Rolie (lead vocals/keyboards), Carlos Santana (lead guitar), Michael Carabello (percussion/vocals), Neal Schon (guitar) and Karl Perazzo (timbales/vocals). Courtesy of Jensen Communications.

On the day of Prince’s death last year, television was awash in old interviews, concert clips, and videos. During a 1999 chat with Larry King on CNN, the Purple One talked specifically about three of his biggest musical influences: Stevie Wonder, Graham Central Station, and Santana.

The next day, founding member, singer/keyboardist Gregg Rolie (whose pipes feature on signature hits “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” and “Oye Como Va”) reflected on that connection.

“Prince has told Carlos that Santana was the band for him, and had a lot of influence on his sound. And you can hear it,” Rolie offers. “What’s kind of bizarre is that I heard he went out shopping for music just before his death [at Minneapolis’ Electric Fetus record store], and one of the new albums he bought was Santana IV.”

Wait, hasn’t Santana put out a billion records since their self-titled 1969 debut with the black and white psychedelic lion on the cover? Well, yes. But for this project, guitarist/leader Carlos Santana has reassembled most of the Woodstock-era lineup featured on those first three seminal records Santana, Abraxas, and Santana III.

That includes Santana, Rolie, guitarist Neal Schon, drummer Michael Shrieve, and congist/percussionist/singer Michael Carabello. Bassist Benny Rietveld and timbalist/percussionist Karl Perazzo from the group’s regular current incarnation fill out the lineup.

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Gregg Rolie onstage at Woodstock, 1969. Photo from http://www.greggrolie.com

So titling the new effort Santana IV is simply a continuation, as if this band of brothers was just picking up 45 years later (though Rolie and Schon would go on to co-found another little group that did OK for itself, Journey). And it seems that Schon was the real kickstarter for this campaign.

“He really pushed for it and Carlos wanted to do it. And when just the five us got together for the first time, we jammed for six or seven hours,” Rolie says. “And we had the same magic between the players, and we knew it was going to be great. And we really played with each other. It was perfectly imperfect”

Rolie says the band worked on more than 40 pieces of music – some fragments, some completed songs, some jams – before settling on the 14 tracks which make up Santana IV. And all were recorded in two or three takes.

It’s a powerful, incredible record that is far better than most people might suspect, combining all of the band’s classic sonic elements and Latin influences (“Yambu,” “Caminado,” “Suenos”) on instrumentals (“Fillmore East”), rock epics (“Blues Magic/Echizo,” “Come As You Are”), and more commercial sounding tunes (first single “Anywhere You Want to Go,” “Shake It”).

Two tracks – “Love Makes the World Go Round” and “Freedom in Your Mind” feature Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers on lead vocals in the social/political-themed tunes. Someone that Rolie was happy to cede the mike to.

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Gregg Rolie onstage at Woodstock, 1969. Photo from http://www.greggrolie.com

“He’s a musical icon and I listened to him as a kid. He’s such a gentle man. And he still has the pipes!” Rolie says, adding that Isley joined the Santana IV lineup for a live show that was filmed for DVD release.

“Among the band, we have the same sensibility about playing music,” he adds. “The time seems like it never passed.”

Not part of the reunion for various reasons were members of the same era Jose “Chepito” Areas (timbales/congas/percussion), and Marcus Malone (drums). The latter made national news when he was discovered in late 2013 by a TV reporter living homeless on the streets of San Francisco. He later had an emotional reunion with Santana caught on video.

“Marcus…it just didn’t happen. And Carlos has been playing with Karl for 20 years on timbales,” Rolie offers. And bassist David Brown died in 2000.

So with a great classic band reunited and able to play a rich back catalogue with strong new songs, it would seem like a tour would be imminent. However, a full tour isn’t up for discussion. Carlos Santana has been active his current band, Schon is embarking on massive Journey tour, and Rolie s handling double duty on stage with both his own group and as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, who are touring this fall. Both Rolie and Schon, are of last month, are both two-time indcutees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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With Ringo’s other group: Gregg Rolie, Steve Lukather (Toto), and Todd Rundgren. Photo from http://www.greggrolie.com

“It’s a chess game with all the schedules and making them work. But this lineup will have and will do some more [one-off] shows,” Rolie says. “I think the way we make this work in the future is to do a Santana/Journey tour.”

Concerning his continued employment as an All-Starr, sometimes he still has to pinch himself that he’s onstage with a friggin’ Beatle.

“It took me two years to not go “wow, holy crap I’m on the same stage as Ringo Starr!’ I mean, the Beatles, everybody wanted to be in that band. And to be on the same stage as the same guy who helped me get started on all this…it’s incredible, Rolie says. “He’s such a good man and good bandleader and we all get along famously.”

Today, Rolie is a resident of Austin, and enthuses about life in the Lone Star State at his home overlooking Lake Travis. But with touring commitments to three bands (and work on a solo record that was temporarily shelved for Santana IV), he only has one question.

“I wonder…what the hell happened to my retirement!”

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Houston Press.

Posted in '70s Rock, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Santana, Uncategorized | Leave a comment