Sunday, December 10, 2017

playin' in the band

One day last week, JP, a friend and co-worker, posed a question to me just as I arrived at work and was taking off my coat. Little did he know that his question was one that had been the topic of discussion many times with many people. Since JP has known me for nearly ten years, he had to have expected a long-winded, overblown answer rather than a typical "yes" or "no." JP's question was straight to the point and innocent enough. But when you ask Josh Pincus a question — well, you're just asking for it.

It seems JP, a fan of Phish, The Grateful Dead and most jam-related bands, was participating in a heated debate on an online jam-band discussion group the previous night. One of his statements ruffled some feathers (not that he was particularly upset). He made a comment regarding the band "Dead and Company." Knowing my devotion to all kinds of music and the fact that I have been married to a proud Dead Head for the past 33 years, he wanted my take on his position. 

So, what was JP's question, already? "If a well-known band is comprised of three original members and continue to tour using the band name (or variation of), are they still that band?" 

I swear, I have discussed this often. More times that you (or other normal people) can imagine. Therefore, I was prepared when I launched into the filibuster answer that JP had to have expected.

I believe this scenario first came up in conversation in 2005 when two remaining members of the band Queen embarked on a world tour fourteen years after the passing of charismatic front man Freddie Mercury. As a longtime Queen fan, I was angered. Not because guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor still wished to be part of the (*ahem* lucrative) music industry, but by the fact that they were calling themselves "Queen." They were not Queen. Without Freddie Mercury pirouetting at the edge of the stage, his unique vocals soaring into the stratosphere, they would never be Queen. Never. Some Queen fans, however, will disagree. They, of course, are wrong.

The criteria by which a band can call itself that band is a tricky thing. My opinion, of course, is merely that - my opinion. But I'll try to explain my rules.

If a band is comprised of the majority of its original members with supplemental musicians filling in for departed members, that band can still claim itself as the band. However (and that's a big "however"), if any of the members had a solo career during or after the band's major output of work, then they walk a fine line with regards to their rights to the band name. As an example: The Grateful Dead had many keyboard players over the years, but the core members remained the same. Some of those members (Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart) enjoyed solo careers — some more successful than others. Since The Grateful Dead never officially broke up while those solo careers existed, the members could reform and disband and still tour under the name "The Grateful Dead." However, when band icon Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, the remaining members decided to permanently disband. That lasted approximately three years, when three members, along with several hired musicians toured as "The Other Ones," performing songs made famous by the Dead. Several incarnations of "The Other Ones" morphed into what is now known as "Dead and Company." This band, currently on tour and playing sets exclusively of dead songs, consists of Bob Weir, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann and guitarist (and self-proclaimed Grateful Dead fan) John Mayer. Original bassist Phil Lesh, who toured with a few of the offshoot versions, has now embarked on his own, but still sticks to a Grateful Dead playlist. While Weir did sing lead on many of the Dead's notable songs, Jerry Garcia was the heart and soul of the band. When he died, he, essentially, took the band with him. This current version calling themselves "Dead and Company" are one step away from a cover band.

In 1986, Jeff Lynne, the mastermind behind classical rockers Electric Light Orchestra, called it quits following a performance in Stuttgart, Germany. Lynne continued to produce other artists and even joined supergroup The Travelling Wilburys for two albums. In 1989, ELO's drummer and founding member Bev Bevan, under a licensing agreement with band leader Jeff Lynne. ventured out in a newly-formed band called Electric Light Orchestra Part II. Although asked to participate, Jeff Lynne declined the offer, though he allowed a bastardized and deceptive version of the band's name as the banner under which they would perform. ELO II featured Bevan as the only original member for two years until he recruited original ELO members violinist Mik Kaminski, cellist Hugh McDowell, and bassist Kelly Groucutt. Hardly recognizable figures to anyone but die-hard fans. The band was obviously lacking something without the creative vision of Jeff Lynne. Now, as announced for 2018, Jeff Lynne has decided to tour as something called "Jeff Lynne's ELO," which, aside from keyboardist Richard Tandy, features a bunch of guys that Jeff Lynne knows.

The Beatles never performed as a band again after that impromptu rooftop show chronicled in the film Let It Be. Paul McCartney, undeniably the most successful former Beatle, toured many times after the Fab Four broke up, but never did he call that band "The Beatles." He sang Beatles songs — a lot of Beatles songs — but he was still Paul McCartney. Even Ringo, who assembled many versions of his "All Starr Band," surprisingly never called his band "The Beatles" — which is commendably un-Ringo-like.

The Who, on the other hand, continue to tour with just two original members and a stage full of musicians playing Who songs. Both surviving members — vocalist Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend — have enjoyed long solo careers, yet they shamefully parade themselves around as "wild mods," despite having long outgrown that label. It seems when the rent comes due, Daltrey and Townshed dust off their bell-bottoms, fringed vests and Union Jack turtlenecks for an overpriced world tour.

Robert Plant, the one-time lead singer of mighty blues-rockers Led Zeppelin, regularly shoots down inquiries regarding a band reunion. Plant is not the least bit interested. As a solo artist, he has released eleven albums — two more than Led Zeppelin released over their twelve-year career. His current musical output leans toward mellow folk-rock, although his concerts are peppered with Led Zeppelin compositions. He struggles with the high notes, though. Plant has realistically assessed his career and knows, at 69, he is no longer the sinewy sex symbol and rock god he was worshiped as. He has moved on and adapted with the times.

When Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died in 1980, Robert Plant considered leaving the music business to become a teacher. I can think of a number of classic rockers who should take his class.

Does that answer your question, JP?

***** ***** ***** ***** *****
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