Classic rock acts still on the road

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Summertime is the season to thumb your nose at the Who's famous line: "Hope I die before I get old." That quip has long since passed into folklore, as more classic rockers than ever pour into amphitheaters, trying to revive past glories and prove their music isn't just a passing fad.

Rockers from the '60s, '70s, '80s and early '90s - the spectrum of classic rock as defined by radio - are playing to a cadre of new and established fans, while performing the music that inspired them as kids.

No one, it seems, is ashamed anymore of receding hairlines or ballooning midriffs. Rock is becoming more like the blues that birthed it, as practiced by such Chicago icons as Muddy Waters until their dying days. And the heck with MTV.

"My heroes were not pop stars who rode around in limos," says singer/flutist Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. "My models were working musicians - journeymen of their trade like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Obviously, I'm still lucky to do what I did as a teen-ager, but it's a challenge to keep bringing passion to it. And I don't do it just to make the audience happy. I do it to make myself happy. I love being a working musician."

Anderson, 53, is one of many classic rockers on the road this summer. Tom Petty is back for more. Prominent package tours include Lynyrd Skynyrd, Deep Purple and Ted Nugent; Styx, Bad Company and Billy Squier; Journey, Peter Frampton and John Waite; and the Poison Glam Slam Metal Jam with Poison, Warrant and Quiet Riot. And of course, Aerosmith can still keep a-rolling all night long.

"It's like 1981 again. The planets have all aligned for us," says singer Tommy Shaw of Styx. His band has had great success with a Volkswagen commercial using its song "Mr. Roboto." Styx also has landed songs on "South Park," "The Simpsons," Adam Sandler's movie "Big Daddy" and the trailer to the new film "Atlantis."

"It's helped us get a whole new generation of fans," Shaw says. "For a while, we were disappearing from rock history books, which was blowing my mind. I'd look at the books and, in alphabetical order, they would go from the Stylistics to T. Rex.

"But no Styx! It made me believe what [jazz drummer] Art Blakey said: 'If you're not appearing, you're disappearing.' ... We've played 300 shows since 1999 - more than we played for the last 15 years."

Shaw, however, harbors no grand illusions about getting new radio hits. Classic rockers receive support from classic-rock stations, but they're treated like pariahs by the rest of rock radio. "We joke that we're waiting for that 'Santana moment,' " says Shaw, reflecting on Carlos Santana's recent crossover success. "But we're not counting on it. We're just enjoying being out on the road, playing to people who really want to see us."

Ditto for Peter Frampton, whose 1976 "Frampton Comes Alive" album became the best-selling live record ever, before he fell into a downturn. He came back last year as a consultant for Cameron Crowe's rock film, "Almost Famous" (Frampton played a road manager in it), and was profiled on A&E.;

Only two years ago, Frampton, 51, was playing at state and county fairs, but now he's back in the arenas.

"After the dip in the career, things couldn't have been much worse," he says. "The reason I feel so good now is that I pulled it all together. I dusted myself off and got back into it. I don't expect to sell millions of records, but I'm going out and having fun."

And while classic rock may sometimes be a pejorative term (some industry types instead use the term "heritage artists"), make no mistake that many of these acts still rock. They're as serious about their music as they ever have been.

"Call us glam rock or shock rock or hard rock. ... Call us what you want, as long as you know we rock," says singer Bret Michaels, 38, of Poison. "I'm just thankful to live out my dream."

The flamboyant Poison blew out of Los Angeles in 1986 with the album "Look What the Cat Dragged In," featuring the hit "Talk Dirty to Me," whose video helped earn the group the No. 1 slot on VH1's list of best hair bands of all time. Indeed, Poison stuck to its glam-metal guns even when grunge music took over the fashion dictates in the early '90s.

Poison's excesses have been well documented, and Michaels is glad to be alive following a 1994 accident in his Ferrari that left him with numerous broken bones and teeth. "Everything that could have happened to this band has happened," he says. "But I'm still alive, and we've been in the arenas for 16 years."

The groups that have survived have done it by taking their music directly to the people. "The resurgence of classic rock is because it is performance-based," says Steve Morse, guitarist with Deep Purple. "There is a familiarity to it. Many people don't like to go to things they know nothing about, like many won't see a movie until they read the reviews first. And with us, it's all about the show."

Classic rock is a world filled with colorful characters, none more so than Ted Nugent. Nugent has told Morse, "Let's see you try to follow me." The reason for the boast is that Nugent, who is notorious for hunting deer with a bow and arrow, shoots a flaming arrow through his guitar at the end of his set. A tough act to follow, for sure.

"Comparing me to other classic rockers is like comparing apples with grenades," says Nugent, whose past albums have included "Double Live Gonzo" and "Call of the Wild."

That may be so, but the one thing all classic rockers have in common is the knowledge that they're closer to the end of their career than to the start of it.

"You've got to enjoy what is left," says Anderson of Jethro Tull. "All of us feel a sense of urgency. While you can still do it, do it, because it's not going to be an option 20 years down the road."

Classic rock

What: Concerts by Peter Frampton, Journey and John Waite (Friday); Aerosmith (Sunday); Styx, Billy Squier and Bad Company (Tuesday); and Tom Petty (Saturday)

Where: Nissan Pavilion, Bristow, Va.

Tickets/information: TicketMaster at 410-481-SEAT or on the Web at www.ticketmaster.com

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