Older rockers are not past their prime

Music Notes

September 15, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison

I IMAGINE WHEN some artists reach a certain age -- after firmly establishing a certain sound and presence in the industry, after surviving numerous pop trends -- it's harder to stay fresh. What do you do when you were so groundbreaking in your 20s? Now you're a legend past 50 with a shelf full of awards, a wall full of gold and platinum plaques. Isn't it easier just to coast, keep giving the fans what they've always expected?

Take the Rolling Stones. The band's new album, A Bigger Bang, doesn't exactly break new ground. It's just the Stones doing the Stones very well. But even if they hadn't released another solid studio effort, Mick and the gang could still pack arenas doing the old hits that made them rock gods: "Satisfaction," "Brown Sugar" and on and on.

Some veteran performers are a bit more restless artistically, so they try to blend new elements into their tried-and-true sound in hopes of snagging new fans. On Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, Paul McCartney's new album in stores this week, the 63-year-old pop-rock legend backs his easy, shapely melodies with darker, experimental textures. Lyrically, he mostly eschews his usual chirpiness for deeper territory: facing fears, recovering from broken friendships. Overall, the album, teeming with echoes of classic Beatles sounds, is warm and inviting.

Sir Paul's Capitol label mate, Bonnie Raitt, also has a new album in stores this week: Souls Alike. The 34-year recording vet and multi-Grammy winner ups the funk factor on this rewarding record. The overall sound is edgier and adventurous with a slight touch of trip-hop and jazz here and there. But the singer-guitarist's rich bluesiness is never lost. Souls Alike is the first in the performer's 18-album catalog to credit her as sole producer with assistance from Tchad Blake.

"This was more of a clear vision of mine," says Raitt, who's calling from San Francisco. "It was a little more work, but it was exciting."

That enthusiasm bubbles through the album. The material is consistently strong. But will it get heard beyond Raitt's sizable, built-in fan base?

"Radio and the music business have changed so much," says the 55-year-old artist. "The problem is the lack of Triple A stations across the country that used to support artists like me, classic artists. The consolidation of radio across the country makes it [targeted] to young people. But my generation has a lot of income and buys records. Thank God for satellite radio and TV."

An extraordinarily gifted artist like Raitt shouldn't have to compete with a flat-singing tart like Hilary Duff for time on the radio. But veterans like Raitt, the Stones and McCartney don't rely too much on Clear Channel stations. These acts still tour, packing stadiums, arenas and prestigious halls around the world. In the process -- and this is certainly true with the Rolling Stones -- they pocket big bucks on the road.

"I have to gig because I can't coast on my record royalties," says Raitt, whose last album, 2002's Silver Lining, went gold, selling more than 500,000 copies. "I make my money on the road. It's, like, 22 of us on the road, so we have to take care of each other. It's living a gypsy life. It's a lot of fun."

Despite the numerous changes in the industry that usually don't benefit veteran acts, it's nice that some still feel a need to push themselves artistically. Even if the new music doesn't necessarily surpass the old hits, even if the new CDs don't sell by the truckloads, the aging rockers still have something worthwhile to deliver.

"You're working against yourself," Raitt says. "You have to show the public you're still interested in what you do, or your fans will go to whoever's got the buzz. It happens, and it doesn't matter how old you are."

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