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Lisa McDonald Interviews Craig Martin of “Classic Albums Live”

CRAIG_BEARDEDClassic Albums Live is a Toronto-based touring outfit consisting of 40 professional musicians with a commitment to recreating a note for note, cut for cut recital of some of the greatest classic rock and pop albums of all time.

Under the leadership of producer Craig Martin, the series began in 2003 and has grown from once-a-month shows at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto to sold out venues across the USA. With standing ovations in Florida, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New Jersey CAL has not slowed down playing venues all over Ontario and Eastern Canada. But Torontonians haven’t seen a performance held in the heart of downtown since the series parted ways with the Phoenix at the end of August last year.

To the delight of followers of the series, a press release issued in May announced that CAL will perform at Massey Hall for the very first time on Sept 26, 2009. The performance will honour the 40th anniversary release of the Beatles Abbey Road when Classic Albums Live performs the entire record with a 17-piece band.

Mr Martin joins me now to discuss this milestone in the series

Many of the CAL alumni grew up listening to the albums you cover.  Many of the alumni have seen the original artists perform at venues like Massey Hall.  With the upcoming CAL show on Sept 26, was there any idea when you started the series that CAL would be performing on the Massey Hall stage only 6 years in?

Yes we did, right from the get-go, we really did.  I know that sounds boastful but I remember Mike Daley spoke about it.  And Doug Inglis and I had conversations about it.  And my friend Desmond (Leahy) and I had long conversations about it back before I started CAL. Many of us thought the series was a sound idea and, if done properly, would translate well to the Massey Hall stage.  I remember one conversation with Des where we were talking about the age group of current musicians, like Paul McCartney, members of Pink Floyd or the Zeppelin dudes, and with no disrespect intended, wondered how long they’d have the ability to play their own music.  We want the original artists to hand us the torch to play their music in not only places like Massey Hall, but the Air Canada Centre and in faraway places like China.  We all dreamed real big right from the very start.  Not just me, but the musicians got it.

Speaking of Paul McCartney, in the film All Together Now there’s a scene where it’s announced Sir Paul will visit the set during the rehearsals of Cirque de Soleil.  The cast are nervous that McCartney won’t like what they’re doing with his music. Would having an original artist like McCartney come out to see CAL perform Abbey Road at Massey Hall also be something you dreamed about from the start?

Yes absolutely.  That’s part of the dream.  I’ve never written these guys directly because I think it would be crass to do so.  I want them to find out about us by word of mouth.  I don’t want to be another lost email.  I want them to come to us.  And again, that’s not meant to be boastful.  I just think it’s a natural organic way that this should happen.

And it’s possible, isn’t it?  That Paul could come to you?

Yes it is possible.  Musicians like him still go out.  My friend Des goes to a pub in England and finds David Gilmour standing in the corner playing, and nobody says boo to him.

Do you think the CAL alumni would be up to the pressure knowing Paul McCartney was in the house watching CAL’s 40th anniversary recital of Abbey Road?

Absolutely and nothing would change really, if Paul was there.  It would just make it more exciting.  Marty (Morin) may speed up toward the end of I Want You (She’s so Heavy).   Stuff like that.  But McCartney should come out.  All the original cats should come out to see us carry on with their music.  To see us treat their music with respect.

The age range of people attending your shows would be similar in range to fans attending McCartney’s shows.  Or concerts by Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, where older audiences are still attending shows and bringing their children and their grandchildren.  Do you find this to be true with the CAL demographic?

Yes we’re seeing that across the board.  Well, you don’t really see it in Toronto.  The Phoenix Concert Theatre is not a club designed for families, but all the other theatres we play, like the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts and St Catharines and down east, you’ll see lots of families and kids in the audience.  And that’s important.  I don’t know if it’s a part of your questions, but it’s something I want to talk about.  In that the kids are hip to what’s going on these days. They all have their pop stars like every generation, pop stars that they love, but kids are seeking out the good stuff too.  My son’s iPod list is AC/DC, Aerosmith, and The Beatles.

But wouldn’t that be your direct influence on your son?

Yes, but he’s also got Weezer in it and American Idiot.  So he’s also thinking for himself, which is cool.

And I guess you learn from him as well?

Yes, but I don’t really influence him.  He finds this stuff by himself.  He’s able to hear songs and say, “That’s crap.  This is just mindless fluff.” I mean, he doesn’t really say “mindless fluff” but he understands it for what it is.  And a lot of kids do.  They understand the hard sell, so consequently they’re seeking out all this music that was made before videos, when you had to use your imagination. I always talk about music made when you had to use your imagination.

So you think kids are smarter than we think?

Yes, and we see a lot of them at our shows.  It’s cool.

In our parents and grandparents day, with few if any families owning a television set, let alone a computer, social activities were experienced through live bands at community dance halls.  Today, more and more fans are downloading music off the internet and sharing on social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter.  Unlike the dance halls or the rock arenas where we enjoyed live music together, these internet sites seem to isolate us from direct human contact.  Do you think live music will survive at some level like it has, as a means of bringing folks and communities together?

Community dance halls, yes, that’s where my own parents met.  I think the arena bands are going away.  You won’t see as many artists going into the ACC as you once saw.   We’re already seeing that now.  I think stadium rock is done.  There’ll be a few to fly the flag but I think it’s going to be pretty much like you said.  Like our parent’s generation, community based.  There seems to be a real communal vibe right now.  This recession seems to have re-set everybody to what’s important.   We’re buying locally and we’re smartening up in some ways.

But don’t you find a lack of face to face communication?  People are communicating on line, having typed conversations on Facebook, and sharing music on line.  The world wide web and computers, just like video games and television sets before it, seem to keep folks at home, separated physically from others in the community.

These are ethical and sociological questions that I don’t really know anything about.  But I’ll tell you this, people will always go see live music and people will always congregate together.  They may add another Twitter type of thing every other day but people will still go out together.  I believe all these technological things just give us more opportunities.  We’re able to wrap things up quicker and consequently have more time to spend with other humans.  I don’t think the way we use technology will have any impact on live music at all.  People will communicate on line and then go rock out at a concert together.  People will always get together.  I know a little something about that.

You’re a musician but primarily a producer for the series.  Your passion for this music and your ability to put shows together so successfully brings to mind Bill Graham, rock impresario.  Is he a role model for you?

It’s funny you should bring him up.  I’m reading a book about him right now for the second time.  Like him, I’ve done my share of yelling and screaming.  His story is a really good one.  A story you can learn from.  He was a business man like me, but I’m also pretty connected to the music and I get involved with the music.   We don’t really do the same job, he and I, but I like the comparison (laughs).

He’s not a musician either, but you two are very similar.

Yes, right on, good.  I see the comparison and I like it.  I’ll do everything to encourage that.  I did model myself after him.  My favourite thing about Graham is you see him at something like Live Aid (1985) sweeping up the stages.  You see him out there in these brown boots on the stage in between the bands.  And he’s doing this himself during the biggest show in the history of the world, next to Woodstock.  Watching Bill Graham sweep the stage himself made me think yes, that’s what you gotta do.  I never lost sight of that.  There’s nothing you can’t do.  Sweep the stage, get water, make coffee, tune the guitars, and hire the right band.

A few decades ago, cover bands weren’t taken all that seriously.  Cover bands were performed by friends of ours as a weekend hobby.  But cover bands today are touring most of the year, charging as much for a ticket as some of the original acts.  Not only do bands like RAIN sell out venues across North America performing Beatles music, but bands like Cheap Trick got together earlier this year to perform the entire Sgt Pepper record in Las Vegas.  Phish’s current tour had polls running for fans to guess which album they’d cover in its entirety at their Festival 8 shows.  What is it with cover bands and bands that cover classic albums that remains this popular?  And with competition like this, does it keep CAL on their toes honouring the music with a perfect note for note recital?

Well no, we’re nothing like these bands to be honest with you.  I mean, a lot of them have taken my idea.  I mean, if I wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, I’m certainly the first to bring performing albums in their entirety, to the forefront.  There may have been pockets of bands doing similar things before me like The Music Box, who I didn’t realize were doing the whole Music Box album until much later when I was researching Genesis.  But I’m the first one to do what we’re doing now.  But we still have nothing in common with these bands anyway.  We have more in common with orchestras, like the TSO, the Boston Pops and the London Philharmonic.  Those are the bands we have the most in common with.  It’s the orchestras that do exact recitals, the same as we do.  They’re the ones that keep us on our toes.  We blow these other bands out of the water.  Line ‘em up and we’ll blow them straight out of the water.  We’ll show you who the real players are.  We’re not a tribute band.  We don’t dress up.

But CAL is a cover band.

The same as the TSO, baby.  And like the London Philharmonic.

What about old school cover bands, like you yourself played with in bars around Scarborough back in the day?

They were good times.  Those were really good times.  I mean, we went out and played six nights a week.  We’d have Sundays off and spend them driving to our next gig.  We played non-stop for fifty bucks a week.  It was a great life but that was 1980.  I think the days of the old cover bands, the glory days anyway, are long gone.

But cover bands still seem popular.

Cover bands aren’t that popular.  Their grafts will go up a little bit, but they’re not doing the numbers like they use to.

All the same, they weren’t playing Massey Hall back in 1980 either.

None of them will be playing Massey Hall now.  Massey Hall is ours.  Massey Hall won’t be booking any of those other bands, which is cool.

So you’re telling me CAL has exclusivity?

Kind of, yes.  It’s cool.  And it’s heavy.

Last year CAL strayed from classic rock to cover classic pop.  With the successful recitals of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Prince’s Purple Rain, do you think you will cover more classic albums outside of the rock world and if so, which ones?

We’ll definitely go back to Michael Jackson this year, big time.  But we’re only doing it in the States.  Our Canadian market isn’t biting.  In the States they’re asking for the Thriller show.  Their audiences want to come out and remember Jackson in a cool way.  So we’re getting a lot of work from that.  We’re also launching a Woodstock show (also celebrating a 40th anniversary this year) and it’s been a tough one because when you think about it, you have the Woodstock 1 album and the Woodstock 2 album and then there’s the movie, and none of these three things are the same.  And now there’s the new re-released movie with extra footage.  So you’ve got a total of something like 8 hours to choose from and we clearly can’t do an eight hour show.  I mean we could, but we won’t.  I have to do revisionist history, I think.  I’m going to take the best bits and put them together for a nice cohesive two hour show along with the announcements.  It’s going to be a departure for us, and I’m concerned about that because it is different from what we regularly do.

It would be different because there’ll be surprises.

Yes, there’ll be surprises and the key may possibly be in changing the set list from town to town. It might be something we do for a tour.  My agent here in Canada doesn’t like it because it takes us away from what we’re known for, and he’s exactly right. He’s very Canadian and likes to say, “We know how this works, so let’s keep with that.”  Whereas my American agent is very American and will say, “Let’s go, let’s make some money, and let’s get it out there. If these guys want it, let’s give it to them.  We’ll fly it up the flagpole.”  It’s a very strange dynamic between the two of them.  But it’s interesting and indicative of their respective countries.

But wait, Woodstock is still classic rock.  I’m talking about classic pop.

I want to do Radiohead’s OK Computer again.  No one else wants to do it.  But I do.

But that’s not pop either.  I’m talking pop.

Michael Jackson for now, but it may be fun to do the Prince album again.

What about Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder?  Weren’t they in the running?

We’ll see what happens but that’s a new crowd and another left turn for our regular crowd.  We learned with the Michael Jackson and Prince shows here in Toronto that our regular crowd wouldn’t make the jump for either of them, which I thought was crazy.  I mean, you didn’t even go.  Our crowd didn’t think they’d be into these records.  Yet they’re both incredible works of music.  Both are classic albums that hold their own against Zep IV and Dark Side of the Moon.  Michael Jackson’s album is Quincy Jones and he’s a motherfucker, man.  I mean, it was like going back to school learning Thriller.  And the Purple Rain album?  Prince thinks like nobody else.

It’s imperative to have younger fans coming to the shows to keep the music alive.  But as the man behind CAL’s marketing and who decides the players for each CAL band, is it difficult to market this music to younger fans? And is it difficult to keep the CAL alumni pool fresh with young musicians who probably never grew up with this music, but who have a desire to play it?

Good question.  Finding the right musicians is hard.  I’d like to see some younger musicians come in, and I know they’re out there.  But we got it to a point now where it’s my duty to keep the guys we already have, employed.  I got a core of about 35 musicians who’ve been with me from the get-go.  We respect each other.  There’s a great deal of respect between us, so just to bring in a younger musician to take their gig would be a big deal.  But I do want younger musicians, so I’m in a quandary.  It’s a line I’ve got to ride.  I’m hoping to get more shows to start a whole other branch where I can use other musicians and start getting a bigger pool, but I don’t want to jump the gun or shoot myself in the foot.  The most important thing is keeping the quality of it.  So you see the quandary I’m in.  As for the first part of your question, it is very difficult to market because we take so much explaining.  It’s like a run on sentence, not a tight little sound byte.  But what we got going for us is people will come to the show out of curiosity or confusion.  We’ve had people show up thinking we’re going to play the record to a light show.  But what happens after they see us is they talk about it.  They talk about it, just like we do.  And explain it to other people.

Are there young people coming to your shows?

Young, old, tall, small and skinny.  All kinds, really.  A great demographic of society.  But I wish we got more black people out.

James Brown couldn’t get many black people out in his later years.  And I remember Tracey Chapman during her tour with Amnesty Int’l, making the comment, “where’s my people?”  Black people don’t come out in numbers for these kinds of shows.  I’m not sure why but  I assume they’re with the hip hop crowd and rap audiences.  But the music you’re playing wouldn’t necessarily appeal to the black community anyway, would it?

Well, it’s soul music, right?  It’s all music from the soul.

But it’s not soul music.  If you were playing soul music, you’d be performing classic records by James Brown, Aretha Franklin or Sly and the Family Stone.

We’ll be doing Sly and the Family Stone as part of the Woodstock show.  But I think all the records we do have so much fucking soul.  It’s all soul music to me.

Was there not a noticeable black component at your Michael Jackson and Prince shows?

Not so much at the Michael Jackson show, but we did see it at the Prince show.  I would like to see the same black people come out for our Fleetwood Mac shows, you know?  And our Led Zeppelin shows.  I want everybody coming all the time.  That’s my goal, and to get the brothers out.

According to the dates posted on your website, CAL has dates in Eastern Canada and all across North America.  But there doesn’t seem to be any dates for Western Canada.  Will CAL eventually play Vancouver or Calgary?  And do you foresee at some point taking CAL to venues in European cities?

We’re going to the province of Alberta.  We’re going to do four or five shows there, every three or four months.  We’ve been there before to put our feet in the water.  But frankly, it’s expensive to do business out west.  We want to, but again, what we do takes a lot of explaining.  So we have to make sure we have all the right people in place before I invest money in it.  I need to build it slow to do it properly.  But there is a plan to turn Alberta into a solid tour base.  The same way we got it going on down east.  We have played Vancouver in the past.  We’ve been to the Commodore.  It was tough there man, they don’t give you anything.  It costs a lot of money to go over the Rockies.  We did Dark Side of the Moon there and it did very well.  They papered the room.  They gave tickets away to everybody.  People’s jaws hit the ground, and they went nuts.  We were asked to come back but I lost money.  I don’t want to lose money. I don’t like losing money.  It’s not good for me, the musicians or anything.

So what’s the real difference between the east coast and the west coast?

My agent.  He’s got real relationships on the east coast.  And now the agency he’s with has relationships on the west coast, so that’s going to help.  We’re also working on South Africa for next summer.  Yes, we’re going to South Africa next summer.  I also want to do England.  But the best way to tour England is to take all our guitars, drums, amps and put them in a van and ship the van over.  And then Johnny B, our tour manager can fly to England, pick up the van with all our shit and pick us up too, and off we go.  I figure it’ll be cheaper than renting all that stuff from over there.   Again, with England you’re going to blow money out your pockets.  Everywhere you go in England, you can watch the money go firing out.  So, I’ll wait a bit.  We’ll get there eventually.

South Africa sounds very exciting.  But I guess you can’t really go by the old models in rock and roll history when it comes to touring.  Things change.

We run into problems with other languages.  We were finally making some roads into Quebec, but it breaks down to language.  I mean, there’s a language barrier.  Classic Albums what?  That kind of thing.

1969 was a big year in music history and many events like Woodstock and the anniversary of Abbey Road will be marked with celebrations this year.   If CAL is still around to celebrate their own 40th anniversary, do you think any original music being produced today will be worthy of a note for note, cut for cut recital in the year 2049?

American Idiot by Green Day would be a worthy album and Bob Dylan’s Modern Times.  I think Dylan’s legacy won’t really hit for another 15 years.  Modern Times will have a re-birth.  And I, singlehandedly, have probably sold more copies of the Modern Times record than anybody else.  I mean, before a CAL show, I have that album playing.  And I just stand at the sound board and wait.  It only takes till the second song, Spirit of the Water, before somebody comes over to ask me, “Who is this?  What album is this?”

cal_at_massey[1]So why hasn’t CAL covered a Dylan record yet?

Oh I don’t know, but I do want to go on record as saying, “I sold more copies of Modern Times for Bob Dylan than anyone else” (laughs)

Dylan may even come to a show if you did one of his records.  He comes here often.  I mean, he’s even played the Phoenix.  I think you should do Infidels.

I’m more a Free Wheelin’ type of guy, but Highway 61 would be the album.  It’s never been played properly with that jangling guitar.  That’s the one we’d do, for sure.

It’s very exciting to be playing Massey Hall, not only for the series, but for the city of Toronto and it’s community of Beatle fans.

Massey Hall is good.  And it’s the CAL musicians who will make the Abbey Road anniversary special.  They are the world’s best musicians.

Are all the musicians involved with the Massey Hall show Canadian?

No, I have a few musicians flying in from the States, a couple of horn players and a string player.  But out of the 17 musicians involved, 14 are Canadian.

Sept 26th will be a very special night for everyone.  Now, I wonder where I can find Paul McCartney’s direct contact information…

Classic Albums Live official website

For tickets to the Abbey Road show at Massey Hall

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