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Inside the Last Summer on Earth Tour

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Featuring Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler, Big Head Todd and the Monsters and Cracker

This Sunday night, many concert-goers on the Bangor Waterfront will be partying like it's 1995, but for the bands involved in the tour dubbed Last Summer on Earth, it has less to do with nostalgia than it does hitting the road with old friends to give the audience some serious rock and roll bang for their buck.

In addition to a full set by headliners Barenaked Ladies, the tour includes sets by three other bands that rose to prominence in the 90s: Blues Traveler, Big Head Todd & The Monsters and Cracker.

When the tour was announced earlier this year, Barenaked Ladies' vocalist and guitarist Ed Robertson said, 'I love playing outside in the summertime. To travel and hang around with a bunch of bands, and get a chance to do some collaboration, is part of the magic of a summer tour.'

As for the name of the tour, Robertson continued, 'I'm a man of science, and therefore put zero stock in all of the disastrous predictions about the year 2012. But just in case, I think everybody should come out and see one last great summer concert tour! It can't hurt, right? Here's hoping the Mayans just got tired of chiseling!"

Barenaked Ladies

For Barenaked Ladies, the summer of 2012 is significant for several reasons beyond their tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the Mayans' prediction that it could be our last. First, it's the summer of one of the busiest years the band has ever seen. It also marks the 20th anniversary of the release of their first full-length album, 'Gordon' one of pop's perfect debut records.

The group toured relentlessly through the 90s and saw their audience grow exponentially - keen to catch as many performances as possible, since each show was different. Barenaked Ladies began to break through in America in 1996 with the release of 'Born on a Pirate Ship,' the single 'The Old Apartment' and the live album 'Rock Spectacle' recorded that spring. That album's gooseflesh-inducing take on 'Brian Wilson' provided the band with significant airplay.

Barenaked Ladies' greatest commercial success came in 1998 with their fourth album, 'Stunt,' and its lead single, 'One Week.' Unlike anything else on the radio at that time, the song's hooky chorus and verses of rapid-fire, pop culture raps was inescapable and ultimately hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Just after the release of 'Stunt,' keyboardist and vocalist Kevin Hearn was diagnosed with leukemia and later underwent a successful bone marrow transplant. After the life-changing experience for Hearn and his bandmates, he was eventually given the all clear to rejoin Barenaked Ladies.

More hits ('It's All Been Done,' 'Too Little Too Late,' 'Pinch Me,' 'Falling For The First Time') followed through the next decade as Barenaked Ladies continued to give the people what they want the most fun you can legally have at a rock concert.

In February 2009, Barenaked Ladies and their co-founder Steven Page mutually parted ways. The band entered the studio as a quartet to record their latest album of new material, 'All in Good Time,' released in 2010. I spoke with Robertson in late October of that year, and he told me that it's one of his two personal favorite BNL records, along with 'Maroon' from 2000. 'I think we really pulled together in a great way,' he said. 'We were pretty fearless about making All in Good Time,' and I'm really proud of the result.'

Three months ago, Barenaked Ladies released 'STOP US IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE!' 10 unreleased studio songs, live takes and demos along with two hard-to-find tracks. The band has been spending their off-stage hours working on new material for a Broadway version of 'Animal House' in addition to writing and recording material for a new Barenaked Ladies studio album. Oh, and they're also working on arrangements for a future symphonic tour of Canada. Overachievers!

If Barenaked Ladies takes anything seriously, it's their mission to make sure that the audience always has a good time. No two shows are alike, and Ed Robertson says that fact is as important for the band as it is their audience. 'I think that's what makes it fun and exciting for us,' he said. 'There is so much improv and so much spontaneity in the shows; it gives us kind of an excited and nervous energy not knowing what's coming next. That adds a lot to the experience not just for the audience but for the band.'


Q&A with Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies

Dow: Whenever I've seen Barenaked Ladies, I walk away wishing I was in the group. It's always such a fun experience, and I'm guessing everyone in the audience is thinking the same thing: 'I want to be in that band!'

Robertson: The beauty of this band is that you have four good guys who are really supportive of each other. There's four of us who are pulling for the same thing. If I've ever been slightly off, the other guys just bring me right up to where I need to be.

Dow: Do you find it difficult to write new songs when you're on the road?

Robertson: I do, yeah. There's so much music in the day already between sound- check and shows and all that we do every day. It's nice to take some time away from that and do some reading or go to a movie. If I have a little idea, I'll just jot it down and move on with my day. When it comes time to write for a record or some kind of project, I tend to hibernate so I can just focus on the writing.

I'm a bit messy with my writing, so I'll email myself a couplet or an idea, or I'll save an email as a draft with a couple of lines in it. When it comes time to sit down and write a verse, I have to comb my laptop or my iPhone and find all of these little notes I've left for myself. I'm totally brutal about it, though. I've switched phones and lost six months worth of writing ideas and say, 'Oh, whatever. I'll get more ideas.' (laughing)

Dow: Recently, Paul McCartney was asked if there is anyone he would like to collaborate with, and he said he'd love to work with Barenaked Ladies. Not only that, he said that you guys could out-sing The Beatles any day of the week. How did that make you feel?

Robertson: Kind of guilty actually, because at the time I did have a loaded weapon pointed at his head. His words don't really hold a lot of salt since his life was in direct danger. Yeah, he's a pain in the ass he won't stop calling. I'm like, 'Paul, give it a rest, come on. Oh, sorry! SIR Paul.'

No, we're all massive, massive Beatles fans. If you don't love The Beatles, you don't really love music. They wrote the alphabet of pop music and everything is descended from that. It would be incredible to do anything with him.

Dow: You've spent more than half of your life in the band. Is that a startling thought?

Robertson: It feels very weird to recognize that I've been in a band called Barenaked Ladies longer than I wasn't in a band called Barenaked Ladies. It's strange but I love it, and I've been enjoying it more lately than I have in 10 years.

Blues Traveler

Celebrating 25 years together, Blues Traveler has sold more than 10 million albums. Formed in Princeton, New Jersey by vocalist, harmonicist and guitarist John Popper and drummer Brendan Hill, the band quickly gained a strong college-aged following among New York City's club circuit and, in finest jam-band tradition, welcomes the audience to record and trade their performances.

In 1992, Blues Traveler co-founded H.O.R.D.E., a series of summer tours created as an alternative to spending hot nights holed up in sweaty clubs. In addition to Blues Traveler, the initial lineup included Widespread Panic, Phish, The Spin Doctors and Aquarium Rescue Unit.

With a reputation for putting on killer live shows (well over 2,000 at this point) drawn from 11 albums of original material and (like Big Head Todd) surprising covers, the band seamlessly weaves their set together with segues detectable only by the keenest of listeners.

During Blues Traveler's 'Last Summer on Earth' set, listen for the hits 'Run-Around,' 'Hook' and 'But Anyway' and, time permitting, collaboration with other musicians on the bill.


Big Head Todd and the Monsters

Big Head Todd and the Monsters formed in Colorado more than 25 years ago. Through thousands of powerful live shows and 13 albums of blues-tinged rock, they have cemented a relationship with long-time fans while winning over new fans at each stop. Like Blues Traveler, the band is renowned for their epic annual shows at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in their home state.

Todd Park Mohr says the band has always had a strong, brotherly relationship. 'It's wonderful to have this support system. Everybody works hard and supports each other. It's a real family kind of environment,' he told me.

In 2011, Big Head Todd and the Monsters made history by becoming the first band to play a live wake-up call for NASA astronauts when they performed their song 'Blue Sky' at Mission Control for the crew of the space shuttle Discovery.

So far on the Last Summer on Earth tour, Big Head Todd has kept the audience on their toes with an evolving set list that sometimes includes surprising covers and a nod to a blues legend to whom they paid tribute on their 2011 album, '100 Years of Robert Johnson.' For that record, they were joined by legendary guests B.B. King, Charlie Musselwhite, David 'Honeyboy' Edwards and Hubert Sumlin.


Q&A with Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd and the Monsters

Dow: You've played some great shows in Maine over the years and even recorded a double live album at Sugarloaf. Do you have some fond memories of past Maine visits?

Mohr: Yes, especially the trees in the fall. That's pretty unbelievable. I've been up there a few times in the winter (laughing) and that's pretty unforgettable as well. I'm such a big fan of forests and wilderness, so I always feel at home in Maine.

Dow: How has the Last Summer on Earth tour been for you and the band so far?

Mohr: It's been fabulous. All four bands on the tour are great and deserve an audience. It's been great to have a lot of people come out to these festivals. Many of the shows have been sold out. I think fans of ours are becoming fans of theirs and vice versa, and I also think we're making some new fans, so this has been really fabulous for us. There's a lot of camaraderie and sitting in on each other's music, and we're having a lot of fun together.

Dow: A few weeks ago on 'The Mike and Mike Show,' we played some bootleg audio from one of your recent shows where you busted out 'Sexy and I Know it.' We immediately started getting calls for it, but since it's from an unofficial source, I'm not completely sure you even want us to play it.

Mohr: I'm absolutely cool with it that's great!

Dow: When you're writing your set list for Bangor on the 19th if you decide to put that in, people will flip out.

Mohr: Alright, I will bear that in mind.

Dow: What was it like to play with blues legends like B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin and David 'Honeyboy' Edwards on your '100 Years of Robert Johnson' album from last year?

Mohr: It's been a life-changing experience for me. The one word that comes to mind is 'joy.' When we were recording, I had a mixture of joy and nervousness. It's just such an incredible feeling to make contact with a whole different generation of music history. Fortunately, B.B. King is still with us, but we lost Hubert and Honeyboy last year.

Dow: Will we ever see an autobiography from Todd Park Mohr?

Mohr: It's funny that you ask that question. Just today, I was thinking, 'I've had quite an interesting life, maybe that's something I should be thinking about.'

Dow: I'd love to read that book. In the 80s and early 90s, you were an independent band in Colorado before signing with a major label. You've tried it both ways - which method of operation do you prefer?

Mohr: Fortunately, my career has had a little bit of both, and even now we're distributed by Warner Brothers. Really, our fans are our bosses and that's the way we like it.

Dow: You and I are about the same age, but you appear significantly younger. What's your secret?

Mohr: (laughing) The secret is not having a day job.

Cracker

Show-openers Cracker have toured almost continuously since releasing their debut record in 1991. Formed by David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, Cracker's biggest commercial success arrived two years later with the album 'Kerosene Hat' and the hits 'Low' and 'Euro-Trash Girl.'

Cracker cofounder and guitarist Johnny Hickman says that for the band, the song has always come first. 'When we started the band, David and I lived in a $300 house for a year, just writing songs until we got a record deal, and we never looked back,' he told me. 'For us, the song is everything, and it's always been that way. When we were younger, we were heavily influenced by song bands' like The Beatles, The Kinks and The Pixies. The quality of the song is everything, and we've always tried to serve that.'

Cracker's 10th studio album is called 'Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey' released in 2009, and Johnny Hickman has just released a solo album called 'Tilting.'

As if 30 dates in six weeks wasn't enough, Cracker has been playing extra shows in nearby cities on open nights during the Last Summer on Earth tour. After their opening set, Cracker will be meeting fans and signing CDs in the merchandise tent.

Q&A with Johnny Hickman of Cracker

Dow: How is the Last Summer on Earth tour going so far?

Hickman: It's been a great tour so far. We're friends with the other bands and have known these guys for many years. The best part for Cracker is, even though we're playing a short set, we're playing for people who might not be familiar with us. We've been around for a while, but have sort of stayed under the radar. Each night, we meet people at the merch tent who tell us how much they loved the band. For many people, it's their first Cracker show and we just come out swingin'.

On this tour, our set changes every night, but people will hear songs they're familiar with. We don't write a set list in advance, but we manage to work in the hits people know. It's not often that we get to Maine, but we have some great fans there and we always look forward to playing in Maine. We've played various festivals and shows there over the years, and I like to get up to that area. It's on my agenda to make sure we get to Maine more often.

Dow: Have you been sitting in with the other bands, or have they been joining Cracker during your set?

Hickman: That's a Johnny Hickman tradition. I've sat in with Barenaked Ladies almost every night, and I've sat it on Blues Traveler's set quite a few times. Just today, I was talking with Todd from Big Head Todd about sitting in on their set. I play a lot of instruments, so there's always a place where I can jump in and contribute.

Dow: How has Cracker evolved over the years?

Hickman: We're a better live band now than we've ever been. We started off strong, and we've honed it over the years to become an even stronger band. We're tight and self-assured onstage, which is key. Stylistically, I don't think we've changed all that much. Cracker is a band that has always drawn from rock, country rock, punk, British rock it's a diverse palate. The only rule we've ever had in Cracker is 'don't suck.'

Dow: Do you have any kids?

Hickman: Yes, I do. I have a 24-year old and a 9-year old.

Dow: If they came to you and said, 'Dad, I've made up my mind. I want to be in a rock and roll band and I'm willing to go the long haul to make it a success,' what do you tell them?

Hickman: It's too late (laughing). My kids and my nephew are musicians already. I tell them that the odds are stacked against them, but if they have what it takes and are determined to do it, go for it. I remind them that they have to pay their dues, but if they feel it in their heart, they should do it. 

Last Summer on Earth hits Bangor's Waterfront Concerts pavilion on Sunday, Aug. 19. Gates open at 5 p.m. Tickets range from $23.25 for General Admission lawn seats to $28.25/$42.25/$62.25 for seats closer to the stage. Available in person at Mark's Music in Brewer, charge-by-phone at 800-745-3000 or buy online at www.WaterfrontConcerts.com.

Mike Dow is part of The Mike and Mike Show, airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Check him out at www.Facebook.com/MikeandMike and www.MikeDow.net.

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 August 2012 12:18

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