As might be expected after all his years on "Entertainment Tonight," John Tesh knows a few things about image. He realizes, for instance, that because he plays pop instrumental music, critics are no more likely to be kind to him than they are to Kenny G. But he also understands that the bad reviews aren't just sparked by the music he plays.
"In Kenny G's case, and also in Michael Bolton's case," he says, over the phone from his Los Angeles office, "people are saying, 'God, look at these guys. They're so successful! They're selling so many tickets, they're selling so many albums -- they're making me sick. I hate 'em.' It happened to Yanni, too, if you want to compare a very similar genre of music.
"But in my case, the critics sneer at me because I do the 'E.T.' thing," he continues. "They'll rip the music, and they'll rip me. But they'll go, 'But the audience is on its feet, and they called for three encores, and it was like a rock concert.' That seems to be the common thread through all these reviews."
Tesh appreciates the attempt to be fair, but he's not entirely mollified. "Because if you're ripping me and the show, then you're ripping the people that are showing up," he says. "And the people that are showing up are not Howard Stern fans. It's really more of a family audience, who want to buy into a lifestyle. They want to be lifted up. They want to be moved. And the letters that we get from these people say, 'When I'm in a really bad mood, or if I want to change my mood, I put on your music.' "
It obviously pleases Tesh to be able to reach the audience that way, but it's nothing he takes for granted -- particularly on tour. "It's one thing to sell records, but we work much harder on the live show," he explains. "Because the way I see it, you really only get one chance in each market.
"I truly believe that, and that's why we work so hard to make sure every show is perfect. We're changing the show all the time, so if something doesn't work, we'll yank it out. Because with tickets at anywhere between $25 to $55 for concerts it's a big deal for people to go to a concert."
He admits that being on "Entertainment Tonight" helps, inasmuch as people arrive already having a sense of who he is. As he puts it, "Some of the older folks who show up are like, 'Well, I don't know if I'm going to like this. But since I've seen the guy on TV, he seems like a nice enough guy. I guess he's not going to spit on us or make us deaf.' "
What most pleases Tesh, though, is the reaction he gets from the men in the audience. "Most of the guys that come to the concerts have been dragged by their wives or their girlfriends," he explains. "They're the first one to say, 'Hey man, rock on!' Because we do do some straight-ahead rock and roll. We just treat it differently. Rock and roll with an orchestra is a lot different than three guitars onstage, and a loud drummer."
It's very different, indeed. For one thing, it involves a lot more people, since Tesh and his band travel with their own orchestra. That's expensive.
But, he says, playing with local orchestras has its own set of costs. "Let's say we go into Atlanta, which we did two weekends ago, and we want to play with the Atlanta Symphony," he says. "Now, they're really, really good players, but we have 16 songs, probably 14 of which we play with orchestra. So if we have to rehearse those songs on that day, we have to start rehearsing with them, in a two-and-a half hour rehearsal, at probably 3 o'clock, then take a break and do the show. So everybody's burned out.
"Now, it's cheaper to do it that way, and there have been people like the Moody Blues who do it that way. But the orchestra is such a vital part of our show; there's a part of the time when the strings actually stand up and take a solo. Then there's this song, 'A Thousand Summers,' where the orchestra has a real difficult time, because we're playing in 4/4, and in 6/4, and then in 2/4, and they're playing against us sometimes. Orchestras don't get that thrown at them a lot.
"So it is a tour where we could make twice or three times the money that we would normally make if we used local orchestras, but it wouldn't sound as good."
As for the rock and roll aspect of what he does, Tesh doesn't
mean to suggest that it's like seeing Bruce Springsteen with the E St. Band. But neither is it all elevator music-mellow.
"We've sort of been standing people on their ears, because they don't really know what to expect," he says. "A lot of people think, 'Oh, it's going to be a new age concert. It's just going to be a guy sitting behind a piano. It's going to be boring,' and all that.
"But we bring a lighting system that's, like, twice of what Lollapalooza carries with them. We have all these projections, and ramps built so the members of the orchestra and band can get to each other. And when we're trading solos, sometimes violin will trade an eight-bar solo with bass guitar; flute trades with percussion; orchestra trades with me; harp trades with acoustic guitar."
Tesh himself even has a Jerry Lee Lewis moment from time to time. "When we were in San Diego, we did this thing where, at the end of the show, we ordered up some fireworks," he says. "We normally do two encores, and we design it so that we have songs for those. But what happened was, we shot off some fireworks, and it drove the crowd nuts. They stormed the stage, they're clapping, they're beating on the stage, and they would not let us leave the place without doing another song. We came out, but we didn't have another song worked up. So we re-worked this song called 'Barcelona' -- we just got into it, and started ad-libbing on it. And I'm, like, out of my mind, with sweat pouring down and just beating on the piano.
"And I just, sort of instinctively, I guess, from watching the Killer, kicked my piano stool away with one leg, not stopping to think that I'm six foot, six inches tall, and I'm not going to be able to reach the piano." He laughs, and continues. "So I'm bending down, trying to play the piano, and one of the roadies grabs the piano stool, thinking that I don't want it any more. So I had to get on my knees and play.
MA It was very, very funny," he says. "But it drove them crazy."
When: Saturday, Sept. 16, 8 p.m.
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
Tickets: $22 and $26
0$ Call: (410) 783-8000 for tickets
On the "Rocks"
To hear excerpts from the John Tesh album, "Live at Red Rocks," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6233 after you hear the greeting.