The Memorial Day weekend has always been a time to honor the sacrifice of those who've nobly served our country. I must confess, however, that when I was younger, Memorial Day was important to me because it signaled the coming end of the school year and the start of the summer concert season.
Admittedly, the middle-age version of me approaches the end of a school year differently than I did as a teenager (a parent with children underfoot can view three months of "freedom" with considerable trepidation). Yet, even though I am closer to 50 than to 15, I continue to look forward to a summer of rock and roll with an adolescent fascination that, more often than not, prompts my wife to remind me to grow up.
Two weeks ago, I perused the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater's full-page advertisement in the New York Times, studying that venue's summer lineup. The experience was akin to a flashback; the roster could have been published in 1978.
Eric Clapton. Stevie Wonder. James Taylor. Chicago with the Doobie Brothers. Stevie Nicks. Steve Miller Band with Joe Cocker. Phil Lesh and Friends. Rush. Yes. Jethro Tull and Peter Frampton. Boston and REO Speedwagon. Allman Brothers Band. Journey, Heart and Cheap Trick. Rod Stewart.
There is nothing special about this venue. The same acts will come through Atlantic City, Camden or Philadelphia this summer. It was just the force of the ad, listing all these shows in one place. And the list didn't include the Eagles - the most popular ticket so far - or Van Halen, which is still going strong.
To be fair, John Mayer, Linkin Park, Maroon Five, and something called the Jonas Brothers are also touring. But the unmistakable fact is that classic rock still dominates in the New Millennium, which is truly music to my ears.
Yes is touring in support of the band's 40th anniversary - in a show appropriately titled "Close to the Edge and Back." I can't help wondering whether 40 years from now, Fall Out Boy will still be packing them in.
I asked Gary Bongiovanni, founder and editor in chief of Pollstar, the trade publication that covers the business side of the concert industry, what accounts for the summer lineup of largely Nixon/Ford/Carter era rockers.
He told me this is nothing unique to this coming summer.
"If you look at the concert schedules for last year or the year before or even 10 years ago, you're probably going to see almost the exact same list of acts," Bongiovanni said. He pointed to a stable of musicians he calls "evergreen acts" - guys like James Taylor and Tom Petty - who don't necessarily need a new record (or a string of downloads from iTunes Music Store) to sell out a summer tour.
Bongiovanni thinks this phenomenon is audience-driven: "There's a lot of demand to see these classic rock acts. I mean, they're really kind of the heritage of the rock music business."
Pollstar's analysis of concert revenue in 2007 supports Bongiovanni's thinking. The Police, Van Halen, Rod Stewart, Genesis, Billy Joel, Roger Waters, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Elton John, Jimmy Buffett, and Barry Manilow were all among the top-20-grossing acts last year.
These days, the concert halls are filled with bald-headed, gray-haired boomers who remain fascinated by the prospect of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Only now, the drug of choice is Lipitor. And if you are lucky, you can score some high-quality Vytorin in the parking lot of the Wachovia Center. It turns out, middle-age adolescents are the ones who can afford the tickets.
But I think there's something else at work. Regardless of the audience filling the venues, the landscape surrounding them has changed.
These days you don't need to camp out in front of a record shop for a better shot at the front row. Just log on to Ticketmaster.
Which also explains the dearth of stadium shows. Gone are the days when Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and J. Geils Band would sell out then-JFK Stadium with a show beginning at noon. These days, Bongiovanni told me, bands are able to charge enough to make stadium money by playing indoor arenas.
I see something else at work: a lack of loyalty resulting in part from the way in which kids today get their music. It used to be that you'd look forward to a new album almost as much for the packaging and liner notes as you did the music. Roger Dean doing the album covers for Yes. Or Storm Thorgerson doing likewise for Pink Floyd. Today, the only way you see what the CD cover looks like is when you view it at the iTunes Store. Everything is downloaded, often one song at a time, to an iPod, and Lyrics.com has replaced liner notes. Consequently, interest in music requires less of an investment in a band, and fewer allegiances form between consumers and musicians.
Some of today's acts have managed to instill the old loyalty, employing ideas unheard of in the age of shrink-wrapped vinyl. Radiohead, for instance, has a following that is so dedicated that in October, the band all but gave away its latest CD, In Rainbows, allowing fans to pay whatever they wanted to download it.
But this seems to be the exception rather than the rule in an age of Miley Cyruses and Avril Lavignes. "There are every year some younger acts that break into the scene, but we don't seem to have the same longevity with many of them," said Bongiovanni. "They're around for a few tour cycles, and then they tend to fade into the background.
"But we all know that we're talking about musicians in their 50s and 60s, and the gravy train that we've had going on, this diet of Jimmy Buffett and the Eagles every year, is going to have to go away."
Well, they are not going away this year. So far, I've penciled in Yes, Tull, Frampton, Journey, Heart and Cheap Trick.
"It's going to be a wonderful, wonderful time . . . confirmation of why we've been together for 40 years," Jon Anderson of Yes told me last week. "It's a celebration. Who knows when or where we're going to do it again."
They had better do it again. For 40 more years.