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The Old Men of Summer

Lynyrd Skynyrd

Warm weather means classic rock, with or without the original drummer

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” has not always been a consoling thought to patrons of Western New York’s summer concert scene. For a decade or so, music fans of my generation have enjoyed the bliss of seeing bands we’ve loved for years at outdoor shows on long summer evenings. And if the band doesn’t have all of its original members, well, go to the box office and ask for your money back. Except there’s no box office because it was a free show!

But nothing good lasts forever. The largest and best venue for this shows, Artpark in Lewiston, has been steadily whittling away at the bargain. Last year they started charging modest admission fees for their bigger draws; this year there’s a fee for every show. They’ve also started sectioning off an area right in front of the stage for those willing to pay a premium price. Add on the cost of parking and concessions, and the shows are starting to become a bit of an investment.

They’re still a bargain, mind you, and many of the area’s other showcases—Thursday at Canalside (formerly Thursdays in the Square), the Labatt Canal Concert Series in Lockport, Gratwick Riverside Park in North Tonawanda—remain free. Still, it’s worth asking just who is in the band you’re going to see. It usually doesn’t make a big difference if the band is missing, say, its original drummer, but if you saw Cheap Trick for the first time at Artpark last summer you can’t help bit regret that Bun E. Carlos, Rick Nielsen’s partner in that band’s nerdy iconography, wasn’t on hand.

Of course, there are some bands who had their heyday 40 years ago whose shining lights are long gone. Presumably no one going to see Lynyrd Skynyrd (Artpark, August 13) will be expecting founder Ronnie van Zant, who died with a few other band members in a plane crash in 1977. The present lineup is led by brother Johnny van Zant and features only guitarist Gary Rossington from the original band. Fans of the van Zant family should be warned that third brother Donnie will not be present with his own band, 38 Special, at their Artpark appearance on August 6.

One of the biggest hitmakers of the 1970s, Chicago (Artpark, June 25), lost Terry Kath, the singer/songwriter/guitarist who gave the band its edge, to a Russian roulette accident in 1978; bassist/singer Peter Cetera left for a solo career hawking soundtrack schlock in the mid-1980s. Remaining are keyboardist/singer Robert Lamm, composer and singer of hits like “Beginnings” and “Saturday in the Park,” and the trio of original horn players. The band they were once accused of ripping off, Blood Sweat and Tears (Erie County Fair, August 13) has come a long way since they booted founder Al Kooper in 1968, with over 150 members passing through in the ensuing decades. The name is owned by the band’s original drummer and contains no original members, not even longtime singer David Clayton-Thomas, so expect the equivalent of a tribute band.

(Which is not to say that tribute bands are always a bad thing. The biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at an Artpark show was two years ago for the Machine, “performing the music of Pink Floyd,” and it was pretty impressive, certainly better than the last Roger Waters show I saw. They’re back on July 30. And while I don’t want to list all of the other tribute bands playing in the next few months, Led Zeppelin fans will probably want to see Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience (Lockport, July 26).)

Back to original bands: ZZ Top (Artpark August 27) remains fully intact, easier to do when there are only three members, though how hard would it be to fake out audiences by putting a guitar tech onstage with a hat, sunglasses, and giant beard?

It will reportedly be a cold day in hell when Chuck Negron, one of the original trio of singers in Three Dog Night (Erie County, Fair August 10), is allowed back in the band, even if he finally kicked one of the industry’s most legendary heroin habits. Otherwise the band is essentially intact behind singers Danny Hutton and Buffalo native Cory Wells, with only a new drummer and bassist augmenting the original members. Perennially popular on the summer circuit, Blue Oyster Cult (Artpark, August 6 with 38 Special) lost its founding rhythm section in the mid-1980s; iconic keyboard player Allen Lanier stayed until a few years ago, but the creative center of Eric Bloom and Donald (Buck Dharma) Roeser remains. Hopefully they won’t be opening the double bill—who wants to see “Don’t Fear the Reaper” while the sun is still shining?

(Drummers and bassists get no respect: They’re the members most likely to change over the years. On the other hand, one of the most egregious examples of a 1970s hit machine carrying on with only its original rhythm section, augmented by a hugely inappropriate frontman, comes this way every summer. Because they’re headlining a charity gig, I don’t want to hurt ticket sales, but you can probably guess who I mean.)

Whether or not you go see the Doobie Brothers (Artpark, July 9) can probably be answered with one statement: no Michael McDonald. Back under the control of founders Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, you can expect lots of chocka-chocka guitar and no pseudo Motown.

Aside from articles like this one, how do you let fans know your band is back to full strength after diluted versions have been touring for years? In the case of one 1970s album rock staple, by putting it in your name: Bad Company with Paul Rodgers (Artpark, July 16) has every original member less deceased bassist Boz Burrell. (Too bad guitarist Mick Ralph’s Mott the Hoople reunion is only playing in Blighty.)

As a band that was around for 13 years before it broke big, arena rock favorites REO Speedwagon (Artpark, June 18) had rolled through a lot of changes before most fans even heard of them. Keyboardist Neal Doughty remains from the band’s earliest days, while lead singer Kevin Cronin is the guy everyone remembers. The absence of guitarist Gary Richrath is all that’s likely to disappoint any fans.

Touring versions of R&B vocal groups from the 1950 and 1960s are the most notorious for including few or no original members. Happily that’s not the case with the O’Jays (Artpark August 20), the trio lacking only singer William Powell, who died of cancer in 1977. They will share the stage with Gladys Knight, sans Pips.

If you’re a big fan of 1970s prog rockers Kansas, you can see all the original members on stage along with a 35-piece orchestra in Pittsburgh for a 40th anniversary concert on August 17. Otherwise you can make do with the touring band featuring original singer/guitarist Steve Walsh and guitarist Rich Williams in Lockport on July 12.

The show is neither free nor outdoors, but the reunited Zombies (The Tralf, June 25) reputedly put on a terrific show with originals Rod Argent and Colin Blumstone, augmented by bassist Jim Rodford (who went from the Zombie’s spinoff Argent to years in the Kinks).

As for all the other shows, aside from Alice in Chains with a new singer replacing the infamously deceased Layne Staley (Darien Lake, August 11 on a double bill with Jane’s Addiction), you’ll see pretty much all of the originals in performances by Primus (Gratwick, June 9), the Tea Party (Gratwick, July 14), the Tragically Hip (Outer Harbor, July 19), Blue Rodeo (Artpark, July 23), the Fixx (Canalside, July 25), and Rusted Root (Gratwick, August 25).

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