Singers For Hire

Singers For Hire

October 08, 2009 — 12:00 am PDT

Nick Krewen /

At the apex of Styx’s popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the Chicago rockers’ Top 10 hits came from a single songwriting source.

Not only did cofounder Dennis DeYoung pen such Styx hits as “Lady,” “Babe,” “Come Sail Away,” and “Mr. Roboto,” but his signature vocals played a considerable role in the band obtaining significant radio exposure and amassing catalog album sales of more than 17 million units.

Today, however, those attending a Styx concert won’t be serenaded by DeYoung, who left the band after an acrimonious split in 1999, but by Lawrence Gowan, a Canadian vocalist/songwriter.

Just don’t call Gowan a replacement singer.

“I would definitely balk at the term,” says Gowan. “I’m into my 11th year, and we’ve played over 1,500 shows at this point. I joined this band not under the auspices of replacing anybody, but because they needed a new member. I’ve played more shows with the band than the former lineup.”

In light of Gowan’s addition, Styx has undergone a transformation and although some DeYoung songs are still performed, notably absent from the set list is “Babe.” “Dennis made a very strong point of saying that’s a song he wrote for his wife, so I feel that’s his song and he should sing it,” Gowan explains.

“It’s so much more a true, classic rock band now,” says Gowan of the new lineup, which includes cofounders Chuck Panozzo and James “J.Y.” Young, veteran member Tommy Shaw and relative newcomers Ricky Phillips and Todd Sucherman.

If longtime fans are complaining about DeYoung’s absence, they certainly aren’t showing it at the box office: Styx is in the midst of a 2009 North American tour, playing everything from casinos and theaters to outdoor sheds and festivals. And in 2004, Styx, along with tourmates Journey and REO Speedwagon, grossed more than $17.2 million over 43 concert dates.

Speaking of Journey, the multi-platinum band now features Filipino lead vocalist Arnel Pineda, their third singer since Steve Perry departed in 1996. With Pineda fronting hits such as “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Open Arms” and “Any Way You Want It,” Journey emerged as one of Billboard’s Top 20 moneymakers in 2008 raking in $44.8 million, just short of Taylor Swift but ahead of Billy Joel, Mary J. Blige and Kanye West. A new studio album, Revelation, debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in June 2008.

Interestingly, Pineda says that one of the reasons he was hired was to ghost Perry’s sound.

“We have to make sure the hard-core fans will be satisfied listening to the songs,” said Pineda during an interview with the Marin Independent Journal. “They’re so used to Steve Perry’s voice, so we have to be really close to how Steve Perry has done it. That’s the hardest part.”

A number of bands have flourished in the wake of vocalist departures. After the tragic death of Bon Scott in 1980, Australian rockers AC/DC bounced back with Englishman Brian Johnson and scored the biggest-selling album of its career with Back In Black. British progressive rockers Genesis survived the post-Peter Gabriel doldrums with such platinum sellers as Duke, Abacab, Genesis, and Invisible Touch, thanks to the seamless integration of Phil Collins as lead singer.

And Van Halen lost no momentum when Sammy Hagar replaced the ostentatious David Lee Roth for 1986’s 5150, and continued to sell millions of albums and fill stadiums throughout the world into the 1990s.

Whether the departure of a singer is amicable or acrimonious, vocalists are usually the biggest risk factor in determining whether a group can survive the adjustment.

“It really depends on the individual act,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar magazine. “Some of them are surprisingly successful, especially when you consider that the lead singer may well have been the focal point of the band.”

More recently, ’90s rock act Alice In Chains forged ahead with new co-vocalist/guitarist William DuVall. The group has released its first new album following the death of original lead vocalist Layne Staley in 2002, Black Gives Way To Blue, which debuted this week at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. The re-emergence of Alice In Chains began with a series of concerts in 2006, all with the blessing of Staley’s family. DuVall, a friend and collaborator of founding guitarist/vocalist Jerry Cantrell’s for almost 10 years, was invited to participate and eventually found his place in the band.

“They lost a brother, but they gained a brother…. And I gained a new family,” DuVall told the Associated Press. “I think when people see it and they see the truth in it, it presents a profound metaphor for how all of us can rise above tragedy if we choose to.”

Whether it’s nostalgia or the music that drives the fans’ continued support in the face of these major personnel changes, Bongiovanni says there’s one common element these acts deliver in order to thrive and survive.

“The ability to put on a good live show,” he says. “That’s really key — and provide a satisfying experience for their fans.”

Gowan certainly feels that the live experience is largely responsible for Styx’s continued success. “I think every single audience member has a different agenda, but if they have one thing in common, it would be that they want the concert to take them to a different place then they were when they walked into the door,” says Gowan. “That’s probably my best contribution to the band so far. We are such a live entity, and people are looking for a great concert experience, and we are able to provide them with that. I know we can deliver every night.”

Singers For Hire |

Pearl Jam’s gem (from 2009, The Toronto Star)

Pearl Jam’s gem

Backspacer, the new album out today from Seattle rock icons Pearl Jam, finds the band in a dramatically different headspace. 

Pearl Jam - notably Jeff Ament, second from left, and drummer Matt Cameron - have come together on their latest album "Backspacer" (out Sept. 20, 2009) to create a blazing scramble of electric guitars and driving beats, with a notable increase in optimism and fist-pumping tunes.


Pearl Jam – notably Jeff Ament, second from left, and drummer Matt Cameron – have come together on their latest album “Backspacer” (out Sept. 20, 2009) to create a blazing scramble of electric guitars and driving beats, with a notable increase in optimism and fist-pumping tunes.

Nick Krewen
Special to the Star,
Published on Sun Sep 20 2009

Backspacer, the new album out today from Seattle rock icons Pearl Jam, finds the band in a dramatically different headspace.

Oh, the aggressive energy crackling of the speakers from such fist-pumping sonic blasters as “The Fixer,” “Got Some” and “Supersonic,” is vintage Pearl Jam, all right; a blazing scramble of electric guitars and driving beats fuelled by the high-octane chemistry of Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron fused as one.

But if you’re expecting the socio-political punch of a “World Wide Suicide” or an “Even Flow,” those types of topics are conspicuously absent on the 11-song, 36-minute Backspacer.

Instead, singer Vedder – perhaps inspired by his recent soundtrack solo foray for the Sean Penn film Into the Wild – has dialed back the lyrical politics, favouring words that are big-picture philosophical, personally romantic (“I’m a lucky man to count on both hands/ the ones I love”) and, in songs such as “Just Breathe” and “Force of Nature” – dare we say it – optimistic.

In fact, the band’s ninth studio effort (or 94th overall album, if you include compilations and officially released live CDs) portrays Pearl Jam in a surprisingly sunny and grateful mood, according to bass player Ament and drummer Cameron. Life – the music, the shows, band relationships and time spent with family – is peachy.

“I really think so,” says Cameron, 46, relaxing on a Molson Amphitheatre green-room couch with Ament before last month’s sold-out concert. “Most of us have families, and that’s been a godsend for a lot of us, because a lot of times when you’re in a successful group, you can get kind of narcissistic and just think about yourself all the time.

“It’s nice to let that go and think about your kids. And I think it can have a really positive effect on your overall outlook on life, you know?”

Adds Ament: “We can still bring it live the way that we did when we were young to some degree, so we’re in that sweet spot right now.”

Since they’re no longer on a U.S. label, the band also enjoys artistic and marketing carte blanche. This has led to a controversial retail agreement to stock physical copies of Backspacer exclusively in the U.S. with Target. (In Canada, Backspacer is on Universal Music Canada with no retail exclusions.)

Creatively, this sense of freedom was further invigorated by the return to the production chair of the Grammy-winning Brendan O’Brien for the first time since 1998’s Yield.

It was O’Brien who helped Pearl Jam engage in a practice apparently absent from previous releases: preparation.

“We’ve always known what Brendan’s strengths were, how he likes to make records, and in talking to him early on, we decided we wanted to have the songs together before we went into the studio this time,” says Ament, 46, one of Pearl Jam’s co-founding members with Vedder and guitarists Gossard and McCready.

“So consequently we made the record really, really fast. We had the basic tracks down the first 10 or 11 days. Then it was up to Brendan and Ed to work their magic and kind of finish the songs off – and they did that really quick, too.

“It made for a more concise, less fatty record – a great way to make records,” Ament says, beaming. Ament said that O’Brien’s objective was simple. “He said he wanted to make the best Pearl Jam record that we’d made up to that point.” Cameron said O’Brien also served as the catalyst for gathering band instrumentalists at Ament’s Montana homestead prior to Vedder setting foot in the studio.

“One of his ideas was to get together in the writing stage a bit before Ed was brought into the fold. We wrote a lot of instrumental music we eventually finished up with Ed.

“It was a really great way to work. On the last record (2006’s Pearl Jam), we had a lot of music that Ed tried to write lyrics for, and I think that might have overtaxed him to a certain degree. This time, everything was super focused.”

The quick and confident execution on Backspacer spurred Vedder’s own spontaneity, notably on “The Fixer,” the rousing single that both fans and radio stations have embraced.

“I think he really trusted his first instinct,” says Cameron. “If Ed came in and we were working on a song, he would go right up to the mic and I remember, with both `The Fixer’ and `Got Some,’ those lyrics came instantly …

“I think that’s probably a lot of the reason the record’s so positive. When he started singing `The Fixer,’ we thought, `Man, this is going to be something special.’ You just knew.”

Ament says Pearl Jam, which has sold more than 30 million records, started to build toward this artistic crescendo with the arrival of Cameron as a full-time contributor for 2000’s Binaural. “When Matt started to make a lot of the songs his own, he loosened up and we started to trust each other more.

“That to me was the first time, maybe even ever, that it really felt great on stage. And I think this is the first record we’ve made where I felt like everybody was really pumped. So, in some ways, it really has all come together right now – live, making records.

“We’re already talking about making the next record, and how stoked we are. And we’re making it with Brendan obviously – although he doesn’t know it yet.”