The Future of Classic Rock Tours: One or Two Surviving Members…or None?
In the last few years, CJ Strock, a talent agent who worked with the later incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band, faced an unusual dilemma. As seen in catalog and merch sales, a market still existed for the Allmans, their quintessentially Southern rock & roll, and their improvisational live shows, but the band itself didn’t exist: They formally gave their last performances in 2014, and Gregg Allman died of liver cancer three years later.
With an eye toward introducing new fans to the band, Strock had an idea — essentially a new Allmans. He reached out to musician clients who were familiar with the songs or who had some connection to the band but were never actually in it. Thus was born “The Allman Brothers Band Presents Trouble No More” — as it’s billed on concert tickets and posters — a multiracial, eight-piece ensemble that plays the band’s repertoire but, thanks to the approval of the Allman Brothers estate, isn’t just a tribute band. Trouble No More’s first show, this past March, was even at New York’s Beacon Theatre, a venue synonymous with the original Allmans and their longstanding residency.
“I don’t want to give everyone this idea, but the model we created here is awesome,” Strock says. “It’s taking the songbook from the original band, which is beloved, and putting players in the mix who are decades younger. We still feel there’s a brand out there.”
Age, death, and retirement have taken their tolls in classic rock, leaving many heritage groups — the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Eagles, the Temptations, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steely Dan and ska legends the Skatalites among them — with only one or two founders in their lineups. In many of those cases, the audiences are still there, eager to hear the hits and see a legendary band onstage no matter who’s in the lineup: The Stones, Eagles, and Dead & Co. were in the top five grossing tours of 2021, pulling in a combined $225 million.
Johnny Van Zant, who took over the frontman role in Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987, 10 years after the death of his older brother Ronnie, has witnessed that devotion firsthand. He says he’s watched fans bring the ashes of their loved ones to the front barriers near the lip of the stage at their shows. “Anything’s good to carry on if it’s done properly,” he says of today’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, which is down to one original member, guitarist Gary Rossington. “Look at Ford Motor Company. Guys started it out a long time ago. Somebody went in there going, ‘OK, we got something here. Let’s carry it on.’ You know, I wouldn’t have a Ford Raptor right now in my driveway if it weren’t for that.” Adds Rossington, “Me, Allen [Collins] and Ronnie started this band with a dream of making it big, and that dream came true. They’d love it if their music was still being played when they’re gone.”
But once those originals retire from the road (or go to the great gig in the sky), what happens next? How do you service fans who have been following a band for decades and still want to hear the music played live in some form, by somebody? The classic-rock world — musicians, managers, and promoters alike — has begun grappling with ways in which to keep both the bands and brands alive and profitable in the years and decades to come.
As Trouble No More represents, one route is to take a lead from ensembles like the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which has carried on playing Ellington’s repertoire, by way of younger players, since the jazz pianist’s death in 1974. There’s also a Glenn Miller Orchestra, named after the big-band leader who died during World War II; his posthumous ensemble, formed in 1956, is booked solid for the next year, with nearly 20 shows alone this month.
Another route, evidenced by Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Wailers, and even Yes, amounts to lineups with nary an original member in sight. (Yes guitarist Steve Howe, though a longtime member, didn’t appear on a Yes record until the group’s third album, 1971’s The Yes Album.) Foreigner, who will begin a year-and-a-half-long farewell tour next year, are sometimes in that category too: Founder, guitarist, and sole remaining original Mick Jones, who is dealing with health issues, is often a fleeting presence at their concerts. “Mick does all the shows he can do with us as his health allows, and we’re cognizant of that,” Kelly Hansen, Foreigner’s post-Lou Gramm singer, told Billboard last month. (“By the time the Farewell Tour wraps up, Mick Jones will have spent almost 50 years leading Foreigner,” a band spokesperson tells Rolling Stone. “He will also be 80 years old and that’s long enough to be on the road! There are no plans for the the band to continue after that.”)
Whatever way forward heritage bands choose, these are uncharted waters for the classic-rock genre as its major players approach or surpass 80. “As we all get older and people pass, how does the legacy carry on?” says Ross Schilling, who manages Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I think that has to be a decision for each individual group and the estates.”
When it comes to Trouble No More, Strock says the idea was to pull together a band “that replicates the original energy that was created by Duane Allman when he stated the band in 1969.” After receiving the go-ahead from Allmans manager Bert Holman and the various family estates, he recruited former Gregg Allman Band keyboardist Peter Levin, singer Lamar Williams Jr. (son of the late Allmans bass player from the Seventies), and brothers Brandon “Taz” Niederauer on guitar (of the Broadway musical School of Rock) and Dylan Niederauer on bass. To make the group “attractive to a female demographic, which is very important culturally” Strock says, the band enlisted renowned former Beyoncé drummer Nikki Glaspie.
Williams says using the ABB name was never under consideration — “It’s an understood thing, that’s sacred ground” — so they went with the title of the Muddy Waters blues standard, a staple of the Allmans’ set list.
Brandon Niederauer says he was all of eight when his father, an Allmans fans, took him to see the band. “Some of my first concerts were Allman Brothers shows at the Beacon,” he says. “My parents were always playing Allman Brothers records around the house. They’re the reason I played guitar in the first place. Fast forward 10 years, and I’m up there [at the Beacon] where they were. It was kind of insane.”
Trouble No More’s approach to the Allmans’ music reflects another way of putting a fresh coat of paint on a warhorse band. Rather than re-create the recorded versions of the songs, the band has tinkered with the rhythms. The group plays the material “five or ten beat per measure faster, so that current 15-to-30-year-olds would get into it more,” says Strock. “It’s tough for younger people to embrace something owned by their grandparents and that’s not seen as super cool. I’m trying to take that original music and have super-cool men and women in the band play this music like it’s their own.”
Williams, who handles the lead vocals on “Trouble No More,” “Whipping Post,” and “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” among others, opts for a modern R&B feel rather than mimic Gregg Allman’s raspy voice. “The people around us have been directly tied to the band for the last 25 years or 30 years,” he says. “That’s another way of saying ‘approved by.’ But we’re not carrying the torch, we’re continuing on with open interpretations of the music and reinventing it.”
As of now, Trouble No More is booked for shows through next fall. This year, the band re-created the 1972 double album Eat a Peach in its entirety onstage; plans are under discussion to perform another catalog record start to finish. (Of note: Next year is the 50th anniversary of Brothers and Sisters, which could be a possibility.)
Although Trouble No More have been well received, they’re also prepared for fans who will grouse at not seeing surviving members Jaimoe or the retired Dickey Betts (or even later members like Warren Haynes or Derek Trucks) onstage. “There are always going to be haters,” says Brandon Niederauer (who is also a full-time economics major at Yale). “If people come to a show and don’t like it, that’s OK. You can’t bring people back from the dead, right? Obviously there are going to be people who are upset that the original members are gone or not onstage, but people don’t live forever. We just have to try to be our best and do the music justice.”
Introducing music from 50 years ago to people half that age is one reason for keeping a classic band on the road, but it’s not the only one. Skynyrd manager Schilling has done the research and seen what happens when a band from that era is no longer on the road in whatever form. “The classic-rock radio spins and the digital streams slow down,” he says. “The whole catalog takes a large percentage dip. I’m not saying the music is going to die, but it’s going to lose its front-and-center attention once the live part stops.”
Then there’s a longtime problem in pop — copycat acts who might use a band name without permission. Allmans manager Holman, who consults on Trouble No More, says keeping a band on the road with an altered lineup is vital to keeping the trademark and preventing touring fakes. “I realized that if the show was endorsed and presented in a way by the Allman Brothers,” he says, “we’d be able to maintain the trademark.”
According to Stacy Grossman, a lawyer who represents artists in connection with trademark and copyright matters, trademarks for musical acts are available in several different categories, from live performance to merchandise and recordings. “If a band isn’t performing, they wouldn’t be able to maintain the trademark and it would expire,” she says. In most cases, that trademark has to be renewed between the fifth and sixth anniversary of the initial registration, and then in 10-year marks afterward. In the case of the Allman Brothers, the live-performance trademark will be up for renewal in 2027.
Trouble No More shows also serve as a savvy way to sell Allmans merch, recordings, and in the near future, a line of cannabis products. “If Trouble No More didn’t exist, there would be no live marketplace for the ABB brand,” Strock says. (A portion of ticket sales goes toward educational programs at the Big House Museum, the Allmans museum in Macon, Georgia.)
Other iconic acts plan to soldier on as long as they can. Like Foreigner’s Mick Jones, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sole remaining co-founder, the 70-year-old Rossington, has had his own share of health issues. He’s suffered a heart attack and had stent surgeries. Since he doesn’t always have the stamina to play an entire concert, Rossington has missed some altogether or played a portion of a set, leaving a new hire, Damon Johnson, to fill in. Skynyrd has had more than 25 members throughout its career, nearly half of whom have died: During performances of “Free Bird,” a screen displays the names of 13 deceased members, including Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Ed King, and latter-day members like bassist Ean Evans.
When the band played Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium last month, Rossington joined Skynyrd onstage for the latter half of the show and watched offstage as the current incarnation kicked off the concert without him. “A lot of different emotions, you know,” Rossington says. “The notes are the same, and the songs are the same. It sounds good to me. It sounds like our band.” Still, he adds of that show, “I look out and don’t see the original band — it’s strange. And then I look out and see a replacement for me, which is strange. Just hearing the songs without me playing on ’em live is very strange.” He chuckles wryly. “So there’s 101 strange things happening. But to see the younger people enjoying it makes your heart warm.”
The 2022 version of Skynyrd, which still plays brawny, faithfully executed versions of staples like “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Simple Man,” and “Gimme Three Steps,” has the estate-approved rights to use the name through the end of 2024. Rossington — one of the owners of that name, along with the families of departed members Van Zant and Collins — is hoping to make as many of the shows as he’s able next year, especially on the band’s summer co-headlining tour with ZZ Top. “I can still play,” he says. “It’s just the travel and getting to planes and hotels. It’s so hard on me, especially when you got heart trouble.”
So, what happens two years from now? Rossington isn’t averse to the band (which also includes guitarist Rickey Medlocke, who played drums with Skynyrd during its early, formative days and joined as full-time guitarist in 1996) continuing without him, should he retire from the road. But he’s taking a wait-and-see approach. “It’s a tribute band right now, and everybody knows it’s not the original,” he says of their gigs, which include video footage honoring Ronnie Van Zant. “Everybody who comes to see us is told that during the show, and probably knows before they even get there. But people still come to hear it live. In a couple of years it’s supposed to possibly stop, and maybe it won’t. I just don’t know, because who can predict the future? We’ll decide then what’s really going to happen.”
Others are excited by the possibilities of Classic Rock 2.0, even if partly in jest. “Can you imagine how cool it would be if someone in the Beatles organization said, ‘I’m going to get Harry Styles, Post Malone, and Ed Sheeran and put together a modern-day Beatles?'” enthuses Strock. “And you go to the show and they’re selling official Beatles merch? That would be hugely successful. From a fan point of view, that would be amazing.”