Groups try musical chairs

Band-jumping leads to some bright, sometimes unorthodox, pairings.

By MARK GUARINO | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor May 20, 2009 edition

Middle age is an inevitable job hazard most applicants for the role of rock star never think they’ll face.

But when they do, they have one clear choice: Parody your former self on reality television and the nostalgia circuit or stay relevant with challenging new collaborations that may be creatively rejuvenating and, if the timing is right, result in a few new hits.

This summer’s concert season is stocked with these kinds of unexpected partnerships between musicians from alternate worlds – whether it’s Tinted Windows, a new pop band featuring members of The Smashing Pumpkins and Hanson; Dead Weather, featuring members of The White Stripes and Queens of the Stone Age; or Chickenfoot, a rock band roster that includes players from Van Halen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

There are also entire tour packages featuring unlikely combinations on the same bill – Fall Out Boy and 50 Cent, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby – that are designed to drive up ticket sales by casting the widest net, a necessity in a recession when entertainment may take a back seat to mortgage payments and groceries.

“I think artists are definitely looking for something special for their fans. In this economy, that is really appreciated,” says Paola Palazzo, senior director of talent for Nederlander Concerts, one of the largest venue operators in the United States. Ms. Palazzo said that in her industry concert promoters, artist managers, and venue operators are actively working together to come up with value-added bills so consumers can feel more confident spending their leisure money.

“I think everyone is being smart this summer and pricing shows so fans can still come out and see their favorite artists,” she says.

The unorthodox matchup that set the tone for this year is the one that paired former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant with neo-bluegrass singer and fiddle player Alison Krauss. Their tour from last year was the summer’s most anticipated ticket and was voted “most creative tour package” by the concert industry magazine Pollstar. And their album resulted in five Grammy awards, including record of the year and album of the year.

Yet despite the project’s commercial rewards, it originated from an artistic leap of faith. After playing two reunion shows in London, Plant was under pressure to launch a Led Zeppelin reunion world tour, which was expected to smash box office records. But instead, he opted for playing vintage country, folk, and blues tunes with Krauss in mid-size theaters – a choice that yielded less revenue than would a blockbuster reunion tour, but ultimately generated something more valuable: artistic relevance.

To Adam Schlesinger, bassist for Fountains of Wayne who is out this summer with Tinted Windows, artistic relevance presents the greater challenge, especially for musicians who get branded early in their careers for one thing.

“All musicians, given a chance, like to switch gears,” says Schlesinger. “When you form a band and that band does well, you can stick to it, but that doesn’t mean that’s all you’re capable of. Bands usually start out as a lark, but after a while it becomes a business. And businesses become a thing with routines attached to them.”

Even though Fountains of Wayne is recording a new album and playing dates this summer, Tinted Windows came together for Schlesinger to play with friends – James Iha of The Smashing Pumpkins and Taylor Hanson of Hanson – as well as a childhood hero, drummer Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick.

Despite the fact that the crafty guitar-pop tunes work so well on the band’s self-titled album, he has no reservations that the project is an exercise to blow off steam: “Everybody’s coming into this with the attitude of ‘let’s escape the typical band tensions that come from being in our other bands for years,’ ” he says.

For some musicians, the chance to stretch out with unlikely collaborators does not only mean a vacation from their day-job band, but also an opportunity to play a type of music they may love but rarely play anymore.

That’s the case for Chad Smith, whose drumming is the foundation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band that has mixed hip-hop, funk, and rock for more than 20 years and won multiple Grammy awards.

But despite playing stadiums for most of his career, Smith is preparing to play small clubs and theaters with Chickenfoot, a blues-rock band he formed with guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani and former Van Halen principals Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony. He says the new band gives him an opportunity to play classic rock in the style of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin – bands he immortalized in his youth but whose music was never directly channeled in the Chili Peppers.

“I love those bands and so it feels very natural,” he says. “If other people are surprised, I think that’s good. It’s always good to play with other people and challenge yourself in different ways. When you do the same thing over and over, you get caught in a rut.”

Smith says the best thing about the band is that he and his fellow veterans are forced to win over an audience, something that is less of a factor due to their respective successes in the past. “We’re a new band. We need to really prove ourselves and that’ll be exciting and a little scary,” he says.

Refreshing the creative juices through unconventional partnerships is what led Paul Simon to “Graceland” in 1986 and Talking Heads to “Remain In Light” in 1980, both career-defining albums. They illustrated how far careers can be extended if artists are willing to follow instincts that might at the time feel provocative, especially to their audience.

To music agent Eugene Foley, these projects will continue to succeed “as long as you put the right people together and the right song and they’re marketed properly,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this regularly,” Mr. Foley adds. “Between [CD] sales and the Grammys, the numbers don’t lie.”

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