Road Odes

Musicians recount the thrills and challenges of the touring experience
  • Photo: Jason Squires/
    Dave Koz
  • Photo: Mark Venema/
    Steve Vai
  • Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
    Bret Michaels
  • Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images
    Jonny Lang
  • Photo: John Shearer/
    Sharon Osbourne
  • Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Images
    Alison Sudol
February 09, 2012 -- 2:11 pm PST
By Bruce Britt /

The event occurred some 35 years ago, but jazz saxophonist and 54th GRAMMY nominee Dave Koz still recalls it with all the exuberance of a sugared-up kindergartner. The event in question was an Earth, Wind & Fire concert at the once world-renowned Los Angeles Forum. Koz was just 13 years-old.

"That show was like a blueprint for me," Koz says. "What I saw was … wow! In those days it was spandex, big afros, explosions, pyro. It was a spectacle and that’s really what impressed me. That show turned me on like I can’t even tell you."

As Koz’s thunderstuck recollection illustrates, few events in life have the power to captivate like a concert. For musicians and fans alike, the concert is a time-honored event that can sometimes veritably alter the course of a life. In honor of the enduring power of the live concert experience, the GRAMMY Foundation will present One Night Only: A Celebration Of The Live Music Experience, the 14th annual Music Preservation Project, at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on Feb. 9.

Exploring the history and evolution of live concert performances, the event will be co-hosted by Sharon Osbourne and Steve Vai, and will feature performances by Bret Michaels, Mavis Staples, Dave Koz, Jonny Lang, A Fine Frenzy and more.

The GRAMMY Foundation event arrives at a time when touring is more vital than ever. According to Pollstar, the top 25 worldwide tour receipts totalled a combined $2.1 billion in 2011— nearly identical to 2010 grosses. Besides underscoring how recession-resistant the concert industry has been, the data also reveal that touring remains the income-providing "bread and butter" for many musical acts.

"I can’t think of an artist now that has longevity in the music business that doesn’t have a solid touring base," says Koz.

A professional musician since the '80s, Koz has been a front-row witness to the tumult that has upended the music industry, as digital technology and social media changes the way consumers enjoy music.

"I remember when I started, records took up about 80 percent of the time and energy that I put into my career," says Koz. "Now, it’s really like 20 percent recording and 80 percent everything else."

More than 25 years into his solo career, Koz looms as a model of the perfect contemporary touring musician. Acknowledging the larger role touring has on careers, Koz has made some important career adjustments that allow him more creative control. Toward his goal of "touching the audience," Koz launched his own branded concert events, including the annual Dave Koz & Friends At Sea jazz cruise and the Dave Koz & Friends Christmas Tour. Sure, taking on concert production chores means more work, but Koz insists the resulting job security and fan interaction are worth it.

"It’s a great responsibility, but it’s also an incredible joy and honor to be involved in people’s lives in such an incredible way," Koz says.

Koz instinctively tweaks his show, performing funkier material in the summer, then winding down to more romantic, holiday-inspired songs during the winter months. "I’ve always come from the position of crafting a show," Koz says. "I don’t just want to play song, song, song. I want to tell a story. I believe that even if you’re playing saxophone, which is the case in my world, that even without one lyric you can tell a story from start to finish. You can still get the audience to a place where they feel like they’ve gone somewhere."

Music, recording and touring have been inextricably linked for decades. In the ’70s, many struggling recording acts including the Allman Brothers Band, Kiss, Bob Seger and Peter Frampton broke through to superstardom by issuing live albums. Since most pop acts virtually lived on the road, a new musical sub-genre was eventually born. Call it the "Great American Rock And Roll Road Song." The excitement and mythology of being a touring musician is superbly summed up in classic road odes such as Willie Nelson’s "On The Road Again," Jackson Browne’s "Running On Empty," "Bob Seger’s film noir-ish "Turn The Page," and Bon Jovi’s rock masterpiece "Wanted Dead Or Alive."

But it’s not always big acts like Seger and Bon Jovi that can have an influence on audiences. GRAMMY-winning blues singer and guitarist Jonny Lang was inspired to become a musician after seeing the Bad Medicine BluesBand, a local Fargo, North Dakota group featuring guitarist Ted Larsen.

"Seeing Ted play guitar and feeling what I felt was so much different than what I had experienced just listening to records," Lang recalls. "I immediately thought, ‘I have to do this. If I can make people feel this way, then this is what I was born to do.'"

Like his idols Steven Tyler and Freddie Mercury, Lang enjoys entertaining "without a net," largely improvising his way through his performances.

"I prefer to have zero plans besides the set list, and even that gets deviated [from] quite often," Lang says. "With music, there's a point where you can kind of decide that there are no mistakes for me, that I’m not going to hold myself to some standard that I’m making up for myself. You go out there and do what you know you can do, because you love to do it."

Alison Sudol can relate to Lang’s damn-the-torpedoes performing philosophy. An acclaimed singer/songwriter who records and performs under the moniker A Fine Frenzy, Sudol says that performing has always been a trial-by-fire ritual for her —this despite the fact that the 27-year-old performer has been singing live since she was 11.

"It’s always been this combination of being absolutely terrified and absolutely elated," Sudol says, "but that combination just pushed me get better and better at it, so I could just get the terror down."

Sudol cites old masters Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday, along with contemporary acts Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear, as performing influences.

"You get this feeling that their whole being is coming out and falling into the audience," Sudol says of her heroes. "It’s raw and it's exciting, and it’s never perfect. I have no interest in seeing a perfect performer. It's exciting to watch someone perform, and you feel like they’re on the edge of a cliff."

In her desire to ignite a flame in the hearts of concertgoers, Sudol sculpts a show in which live song arrangements are subtly yet recognizably different than their recorded versions. "It's a lot of preparation," Sudol says. "Then you get on the road and see what works and what doesn’t. You iron the kinks as you go. There’s really no other way to do it."

Unfortunately, there's no way of getting around the downsides of touring either. The run-up to a tour can be tremendously hectic, with myriad business and logistical concerns to consider ("I'm so disorganized," laughs Sudol). Then there’s the personal toll the road can take on a performer. Lang laments the strain touring takes on his family, praising his wife Haylie for "putting up with the myriad of crap" the touring life demands.

But in their sacrificial pursuit of performing excellence, musicians work hard to give audiences the same life-affirming jolt they themselves experience when witnessing their own idols.

"My biggest hope is that I can be that [inspiration] for somebody at a show," Lang says. "That it be something more than entertaining. Something deeper."

Like Koz and Lang, Sudol approaches live performance as an opportunity to tell a story, however difficult that may be performing songs culled from different albums. But when everything clicks, the payoffs — intense audience participation, sing-alongs, standing ovations and the like — can be absolutely exhilarating.

"You can be playing to a more conservative bunch, so you walk off stage and think to yourself, 'Wow, they hate me,'" Sudol says with a laugh. "But then you go outside to sign some stuff, and there’s a line around the block and people are saying, 'Oh my God! That changed my life!' That’s why I’ve learned not to cry after shows where I think things have gone terrible, because I’m usually wrong."

(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)

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