Long Island loves classic rock. For decades the backbone of Jones Beach Theater’s annual lineup has consisted of package tours for bands of this genre. They are road warriors who have been on tour for more than 40 years with a catalog that gets spun daily on radio stations across the country. However, for many, it’s the fourth quarter and time is ticking.
With the recent deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Gregg Allman, who all died in their late 60s, many groups are faced with the inevitable question: How long can they go?
Perhaps the looming finish line is exactly what serves as inspiration to keep soldiering on.
“We are all mortal, even though rock and roll makes us feel immortal,” says keyboardist-guitarist-vocalist Robert Lamm, founding member of Chicago. “At some point we will have to stop. But, we try not to think about it, quite honestly. We are completely in denial but history tells us that we are only here for a little while and then you are not.”
THE IMPACT OF LOSSES
In addition to affecting the fans, the recent slew of musician deaths (J. Geils, Prince, Chris Cornell, George Michael) has shaken the artists’ community as well.
“I guess we are at an age now and a period in life where you can expect that stuff to happen. But, it’s still a shock,” says guitarist-vocalist Tom Johnston of The Doobie Brothers. “If you think of all the songs they brought to so many people over the years, it’s kind of a mindblower.”
Lead singer of REO Speedwagon Kevin Cronin adds, “We all lived hard in the ’70s and ’80s, then there was a wake-up call. Some people took the wake-up call and allowed it to wake them up and some didn’t.”
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Lamm feels the key is all about personal maintenance.
“You have to eat right, sleep right, work out and pay attention to your mind, body and soul,” says Lamm, 72. “We’ve all seen people who cannot or will not do that and we lose them.”
One of the key threads that tie the classic rock fans together is the emotional attachment they have to the songs.
“I’ve had people say, ‘That song got me through a tough time,’ or ‘You got me through a war with your album.’ That kind of stuff means a lot,” says Johnston, 68. “They can identify with the words and the chords to the point where it has personal meaning to them. That’s one of the reasons we keep on doing what we do.”
Sometimes that kind of connection is even visible in the first few rows at a concert.
“When I see people singing along to ‘More Than A Feeling,’ I get choked up. It’s so special,” says Boston guitarist Gary Pihl, 66. “You can’t anticipate it, it just happens right in front of you. It’s really overwhelming.”
Cronin, 65, agrees: “It’s a pretty great feeling when you can stand there and play the opening chord to a song and witness 10,000 people’s arm hair standing up simultaneously.”
These days classic rock artists get close to their fans by making themselves more accessible than they had in the past.
“I really love the crowd. I’ll go up to the front of the stage, shake hands, throw out guitar picks, sign things and spend some time with them,” says former Eagles guitarist-vocalist Don Felder. “When I toured with the Eagles there was no connection with the band and the audience. Now I take a selfie with the crowd behind me at the end of the set and post it on Facebook.”
NEW ALBUM DILEMMA
Releasing new music can be tricky business for these acts. Some feel it’s necessary, while others are content to rely on their old catalog.
“We insist on bringing in new material. It’s what keeps the band alive,” says vocalist Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, which released the album “Infinite” this spring. “It gives us pleasure and we hope the audience joins in the fun.”
Styx stopped recording for more than a decade and simply toured highlighting their past.
“The reason we didn’t do an album is because there was nowhere out there for us,” says Styx vocalist-guitarist Tommy Shaw. “Classic rock stations aren’t going to play new music from a classic rock band.”
However, today alternative venues can help promote new music — which was useful for Styx when recently releasing its critically acclaimed new album, “The Mission.”
“The internet really opened things up,” says Shaw, 63. “You can hear new music on YouTube, our website, Facebook or Instagram. If you join our fan club, we have your email address and we can go right to you and bypass program directors.”
KEEPING THE SHIP SAILING
One thing Styx and many other classic rock acts have done successfully is replace members while still maintaining the sound and spirit of the band.
“It puts a big bump in the road but you just have to keep on going,” says Johnston. “You do auditions, go through a few people, try ’em out, see how it works and grab the one you think is going to work the best, pick up and take off.”
Gillan, 71, adds, “Like any family that lasts this long, you are going to get deaths, divorces, sicknesses, but the foundation of the house is strong. There have been good times and bad times but we are all survivors.”
NO AUDIO TRICKS
Some bands even cheat by using backing tracks live to sweeten their sound. However, many others refuse to go that route.
“All six of us sing. We are proud that we don’t use any prerecorded tracks,” says Pihl, about Boston. “It means a lot to us and we do it in full pitch; we don’t even tune down.”
Styx also proudly maintains its signature harmonies without any audio enhancements.
“You’ve got to be able to rise up and do it the way you’ve always done it — hit those notes and play those solos,” says Shaw. “You want to be able to look out in the crowd and see people pumping their fists in the air and singing along with you.”
HEAD TO THE BEACH
Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater has been a regular stop on the summer schedule for many of these classic rock bands that have grown attached to the outdoor amphitheater.
“It’s such an iconic venue,” says Chicago’s Lamm. “If you get good weather, it can be such a beautiful evening, more often than not that’s the case. I used to bring my kids and they’d be running around backstage. I have all those good memories.”
The Doobie Brothers’ Johnston adds, “It’s always a fun stop on the tour. I remember back in the day when the water was in front of the stage.”
“Jones Beach is our New York hang. It’s become our home away from home,” says REO Speedwagon’s Cronin. “It’s a like an old British theater, even the seats up top are good.”
But what happens when these bands retire?
“The music industry infrastructure that built us up over the years is not there for future bands,” says Cronin. “My band lived through the golden age of rock and roll. Will it ever return? That’s doubtful.”
The music scene has changed as artists’ careers are no longer nurtured the way they used to be.
“Everything is about marketing and money now,” says Johnston. “The emphasis isn’t on music the way it used to be. That’s where the weak link is to me.”
NO PLANS TO STOP
However for many of these bands, there’s no end game in sight as they continue to forge forward.
“I still have fun playing. I certainly don’t need to do it for the money. There’s a fulfillment to it,” says former Eagle Felder, 69. “When it stops being fun I guess I’ll stop, but until then I’m going to keep doing it as much as I can.”
Many fans make sure to catch their heroes each year, wondering whether the current tour might be the last.
“Time is running short. We are getting near the end. Every day is precious,” says Gillan. “We are all knocking on a bit now. At the end of this tour we will all be around 75 years old. But, it’s been great. I’ve loved every minute of it. Hopefully, we have a few more minutes yet.”
However, they still look toward their elders for inspiration.
“God love The Rolling Stones,” says Cronin. “Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts are still doing it at a high level, as well as Paul McCartney and Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who. They are blazing the trail for us all!”
SIGNATURE HITS “25 or 6 to 4,” “Saturday in the Park”
LEGACY MEMBERS REMAINING Robert Lamm, James Pankow, Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider
SIGNATURE HITS “Come Sail Away,” “Too Much Time on My Hands”
LEGACY MEMBERS REMAINING Tommy Shaw, James “JY” Young and Chuck Panozzo (part-time)
DON FELDER (formerly of Eagles)
STARTED Joined Eagles in 1974, went solo in 2001
SIGNATURE HITS “Hotel California,” “Life in the Fast Lane” (with Eagles)
SIGNATURE HITS “Keep On Loving You,” “Take It on the Run”
LEGACY MEMBERS REMAINING Kevin Cronin, Bruce Hall and Neal Doughty
SIGNATURE HITS “Smoke on the Water,” “Space Truckin’ ”
LEGACY MEMBERS REMAINING Ian Gillan, Ian Paice and Roger Glover
SIGNATURE HITS “More Than a Feeling,” “Don’t Look Back”
LEGACY MEMBERS REMAINING Tom Scholz and Gary Pihl
THE DOOBIE BROTHERS
SIGNATURE HITS “Listen to the Music,” “Long Train Runnin’ ”
LEGACY MEMBERS REMAINING Tom Johnston, Patrick Simmons and John McFee
— DAVID J. CRIBLEZ
Where to hear classic rock
UPCOMING SHOWS at JONES BEACH
BOSTON & JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS
WHEN July 23, 7:30 p.m.
CHICAGO & THE DOOBIE BROTHERS
WHEN July 28, 7:30 p.m.
STYX, REO SPEEDWAGON & DON FELDER
WHEN Aug. 16, 7 p.m.
DEEP PURPLE & ALICE COOPER
WHEN Aug. 26,6:30 p.m.
WHERE Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh
INFO 516-221-1000, livenation.com
JULY 29 Eagles, Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers
JULY 30 Fleetwood Mac, Journey and Earth, Wind & Fire
WHERE Citi Field in Flushing, Queens
INFO 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com
ADMISSION $75-$475 (per day), $150-$950 (weekend pass)
Classic rock airwaves
When it comes to classic rock, WBAB/102.3 FM is Long Island’s main outlet. The West Babylon station serves as a home for the genre playing everything from AC/DC to ZZ Top.
“In many markets, classic rock has died. I don’t think it will die in our lifetime in this market because people on Long Island grew up with it,” says morning DJ Roger Luce. “They have a loyalty to these bands for 40 or 50 years and you don’t see that with many of the newer artists. Classic rock fits in the fabric of Long Island.”
His DJ partner John “JP” Parise agrees: “It’s the soundtrack of a lot of people’s lives. Long Island at its core is a blue collar place. Classic rock connects with the working man and that work ethic.”
The duo feels that the music WBAB features, ranging from the late ’60s to the mid-’80s, strikes a certain chord with Long Islanders.
“I don’t know if anything can measure up to that period,” says Luce. “There’s something special about that generation or two that may be untouchable.”
The station’s programming stays away from new material and sticks to the proven rock anthems of yesteryear.
“People want to be able to turn on WBAB and sing the words or air guitar to every song we play,” says Parise. “They want that connection and they don’t have the patience for new.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ