When it comes to baby boomers' musical tastes, the mood of summer has always extended beyond the media's fond memories of Woodstock.
Tomorrow night Barbara Huston plans to settle into an orchestra seat at the Wolf Trap performing arts center in Vienna, Va., as Tony Bennett's smooth voice washes away the frustrations of work. At 54, the Severna Park resident is among thousands of boomers expected to hear the legendary singer this summer on his national concert tour.
"Tony Bennett has been singing about as long as I've been alive," Huston says. "I've always been a fan. You always understand the lyrics, and I appreciated that even when I was much younger. Now I admire him so much because he's kept his instrument in shape -- and because at age 80, he's trying different things."
Huston runs Partners in Care, a community non-profit organization that helps older and disabled adults remain independent in their homes. Like many in her generation, she believes in the power of periodic rejuvenation, if not downright reinvention.
Along with Tony Bennett, dozens of bands from the 60s, 70s and 80s are refreshing their acts this summer to appeal to the roughly 78 million baby boomers -- as well as their children.
Jefferson Starship, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company are among the summer's most publicized reunion artists. They will perform in Monterey, Calif., as part of a 40th anniversary tribute to the 1967 Summer of Love festival.
Legacy and reunion artists performing in the Baltimore / Washington area include Police; Earth, Wind & Fire; Steely Dan; Chicago; The Doobie Brothers; Little Feat; The Smothers Brothers and Kingston Trio; Linda Ronstadt; Aretha Franklin; The Steve Miller Band; The Temptations and The Four Tops; Arlo Guthrie and Richie Havens; Judy Collins and the Beach Boys.
Able to afford ticket prices that often exceed $75, boomers are not only a boon to aging musicians but also to anyone presenting them.
"Music will always be part of baby boomers' lives -- but it's hard for our generation to find music that's relevant because the industry is still so youth-focused," says Rick Bowers, the 55-year-old director of creative initiatives for AARP, the organization sponsoring Tony Bennett's "The Best is Yet To Come Tour."
"Our idea is to engage our membership, and the public at large, with compelling music that speaks to them. We know people respond to music on an emotional level -- and that organizations need to reach people at an emotional level -- so we figured 'Why not think strategically about the use of music?'"
In addition to entering the concert business -- AARP is discounting Tony Bennett tickets to members -- the national non profit is trying to entice boomer members with a music discovery service on its Web site. AARP Jukebox invites visitors to explore the work of artists who are similar to their own favorites.
Such programs reflect a growing trend to create more outlets for the musical desires of aging Americans, says Russ Crupnick, senior industry analyst of the NPD Group, a market research firm. Last year, boomers accounted for 30 percent of CD sales in the U.S.
"We think of music as being very teen-oriented, but a significant amount of its consumption is by 35 and 40-plus groups," he says. "About 80 percent of music acquisition by teens and college students is from "unsanctioned sources." It's unpaid, peer to peer, sharing and swapping. Only 20 percent is bought.
"On the other hand, those numbers are completely flipped for baby boomers."
Tony Bennett's recent Duets album has sold 1.5 million copies, a feat which Kevin Caulfield of Billboard calls "extraordinary for anyone at that point in their career." Roughly 64 percent of Duets buyers were over the age of 50 -- and 66 percent of those were female. Part of the CD's success, observers note, is due to the diverse array of guest artists, including Bono, the Dixie Chicks, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and k.d.lang. Such a line-up speaks to the eclecticism of the boomers.
"You're really talking about people who span two generations ... and who are very different geographically and demographically," says Crupnick. "Boomers are about the most diverse market group you could imagine, and their musical tastes reflect that. ... People are often mistaken in thinking that boomers are all buying Led Zeppelin."
The top choices
So what are boomers buying?
According to NPD, last year's No. 1 boomer pick was actually a genre -- classical music -- followed by Barry Manilow, Toby Keith, The Beatles, Rod Stewart, Carrie Underwood, Luther Vandross, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Michael Buble and Il Divo.
None of these artists happen to be on Jeanne Fleming's current Top Hits list. At 61, the Bethesda resident remains a rock 'n roll fan and tireless concert goer, attending 15 to 30 shows each year. The music love affair that began with Dion and the Belmonts and American Bandstand continues to simmer, she says.
"Rock 'n roll is my passion," she says. This summer she's most excited about a concert at Columbia's Merriweather Post that brings together Nickelback, Staind and Daughtry. She wants to see Police at the Virgin Festival at Pimlico, and may buy tickets for Chicago at Wolf Trap.
But, in her mind, there's only one classic artist that embodies summer.
"Jimmy Buffett," she says. "Talk about summer music, he's the best. He's amazing."
Her 42-year-old son, Tony Fleming, has to agree. "Jimmy Buffett's great. So are the Beach Boys. Even though it's not my era, it's great summer music. I love the fact these bands have resurrected and that enough people remember them."
Like his mother, Tony Fleming is a baby boomer. The oldest of Jeanne Fleming's three boys, he was born when she was 18.
"She's always been very hip," he says. "We all grew up listening to the same stuff. I still love a lot of the '80s hair bands. ... Last summer I saw Motley Crue, Poison and Dokken."
And this year?
Given the demands of his classic cars business in Rockville and the schedule of his kids -- aged 12 and 13 -- Fleming and his wife are not quite yet in concert mode.
"I'm sure I'll see something," he says. "We're a pretty musically-driven household."
Buyers are older
The music industry likes to hear that. In the past seven years, album sales have plummeted by almost a third, according to David Pakman, president and CEO of eMusic, a digital music retailer whose average customer is 39.
"Because the youth demographic expects to get music for free, the boomers and slightly younger demographic are responsible for keeping the music industry afloat right now," he says. "Boomers grew up buying music. They have a collector mentality and still like to own music."
They also like to read about it. EMusic offers essays and recommendations by "personal music concierges" such as Justin Davidson, a classical music critic at Newsday, and Kevin Whitehead, who covers jazz for National Public Radio.
The retailer also caters to boomers with more adventurous tastes who may feel abandoned by mainstream radio, Pakman says. One of the most popular indie bands is Arcade Fire, while such artists as Bebel Gilberto, Angelique Kidjo, Of Montreal, White Stripes, the Decemberists, Joanna Newsom and Spoon also sell well.
Arcade Fire is a favorite of 52-year-old Craig Hankin, a former rock musician and director of the Johns Hopkins Homewood art workshops. In July, Hankin and his wife will see the Decemberists perform a concert with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Merriweather. He has no plans to revisit the beloved groups of his past.
"Most of my friends aren't all that nostalgic about reunion bands," he says. "It's 'I saw them when they were great. Why would I see them now?'"
Rock fans like Jeanne Fleming see things differently.
"I go to enjoy the music, and I always go with my cup half full," she says. "I don't care if the voices are a little wobbly. I think the fact they're still singing is a testament to who they are as human beings."
A number of venues in the Baltimore/Washington area offer summer concerts with reunion, tribute and legacy bands as well as new artists with boomer appeal. For listings, consult the following Web sites:
Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia: merriweathermusic.com
Wolf Trap's Filene Center for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va.: wolf-trap.org
Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore piersixpavilion.com
Virgin Festival at Pimlico: virginfestival.com