Bowing at the Alt Altar

Singer Ed Kowalczyk explains Live's longevity

At the height of the alternative surge of the early '90s, Live -- with a long i, named after the setting in which the group felt most at home -- embodied the best of American pop. The outsider band from Pennsylvania tapped into the national consciousness with a string of fervent, radio-dominating singles across a trio of unusually profound albums. Its complex, airtight compositions and pensive, liberating lyrics engaged a vast array of fans and quite possibly elevated pop music's quota on introspection and soul searching. Live's laser-voiced singer, Ed Kowalczyk, spoke with Outtakes about those days of yore:

Outtakes: Back then, it was called alternative. Today, it's indie. But there's always been music that's countered the mainstream.

Kowalczyk: Yeah, there definitely has to be. It's a different world for rock 'n' roll than it was in the mid-'90s. But it's interesting that even though there's this new wave of bands, there's always an appreciation for bands that don't change with the trends, like U2, that always stay true to themselves. And somehow even though their sound may be 20 years old and they may be a huge pop band; they're still against the mainstream, they're still not like anything else. I think Live is like that too.

Are your audiences more veteran fans from back then or newbies?

I think both -- as our crowd gets older, it also gets younger. I've always called it the "Uncle Phenomenon," where your big brother or uncle's like, 'OK, your music's cool, but if you really want to be cool, come see this band.' You end up getting kind of uncled in.

Where does the band's staying power come from?

The average Live song has an emotional depth that people really appreciate. So many people have adopted these songs as the soundtrack to the emotional landscape of their lives. I look down from the stage into the audience, and I see tears in people's eyes. So as a songwriter, that's what inspires me to keep going to the deep places within myself.

You guys have always been known for your ferocious live show. Fifteen years later, do you still deliver?

It's funny -- even though we're older, we're better in concert. We've definitely grown as performers in terms of our musical range of what we can give on-stage. Dynamically, that's grown just as much as songwriting over the last ten years. People who saw us for the only time in '95, '96 need to come see us now, because we're putting out an entirely different show.

Plus, you're playing at an Indian gaming resort. It's like a 24-hour party zone.

A 24-hour party zone sounds like the kind of place I want to play. -- Jonathan Zwickel

Live performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, August 9, at the Hard Rock Live Arena, 5747 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $42.50. Call 954-523-3309.

Not So Much Like a Rock

Many music-minded viewers of the MLB All-Star Game earlier this month were shocked at Chevrolet's newest commercial. There were the standard shots of a Chevy crashing and splashing through rocky streams and flannel-shirted rednecks tossing bales of hay. But what's that music playing in the background -- familiar yet, given its surroundings, completely out of place?

The Chevy logo appeared with a new slogan, accompanied by the gravelly voice of none other than Steve Earle: "The Revolution Starts Now!" This is the same Steve Earle who boasted he's to the left of Chairman Mao, who dared to write a sympathetic song about John Walker Lindh, who likens his politically charged music to a weapon, the same way his hero Woody Guthrie scrawled This machine kills fascists on his guitar.

So now this man is a common shill, another Toby "I'm a Ford Truck Man" Keith? And of all his songs, why did it have to be "The Revolution Starts Now," a call to arms against Dubya and his war for oil, in an ad for gas-guzzling Chevy trucks?

Before you cry sellout, remember this about Steve Earle: He's a man with six ex-wives and close to an equal number of ex-managers, some to whom he still owes money. (Full disclosure: My father is one of the latter, and he once sued Earle for more than $40,000 and won.) He also supports his retired parents and several of his children, including an illegitimate one that surfaced after he beat his drug addiction, not to mention other kin and even friends. (More disclosure, balancing the first one: Earle once gave my stepfather and now-deceased mom the down payment for a house in Nashville.) In his 2003 biography, Earle told author Lauren St. John that his overhead was then $35,000 a month.

Kinda reminds me of a quote from bluesman R.L. Burnside, a musician with similar family obligations, if on a smaller scale: "Man," he once told a reporter, "I got to put 12 biscuits on the table 'fore I get to eat even one."

Chevy ad deals buy a lot of biscuits, people. What's more, Chevy is an American company that provides a lot of increasingly rare, blue-collar, living-wage jobs. Sure, it will rob one of Earle's songs of some of its pure radical power. Get over it. He'll write more, and as it happens, Earle was wrong. Dubya won, and the revolution still hasn't started. -- John Nova Lomax

Boxin' the '90s

Musically, the '90s boil down to this: In January 1992, Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson off the number-one position on Billboard's album chart. And for the next eight years, alternative was the word and the airwaves were unusually diverse.

Taken one tune at a time, the just-released Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box is filled with tracks that radio overplayed to the point of obsolescence. But strung together 19 at a time over seven CDs, these 130 songs create a mesmerizing time warp.

Since they didn't record for the Warner Bros. family, most major grunge and hip-hop icons elude the Box. And this space is way too tiny to allow us to draw a full roadmap of the decade's musical landscape. What follows, then, is Outtakes' compass rose of the '90s, songs from Whatever that establish the four cardinal directions music has traveled to get where it is today.

North: Hip-hop

Kris Kross, "Jump"

Where & When: America, summer 1992

Significance: Dr. Dre, the No-Limit Army, Tupac, and Biggie aren't here -- so we're left with Kris Kross. The duo's success shows that the nation was so hungry for rap, we'd follow it anywhere. Just listen to rap radio today -- we still do.

East: Metal

Pantera, "Walk"

Where & When: Keg parties and professional wrestling events, 1992 through now.

Significance: Leading to Ozzfest and the ongoing metal renaissance, Pantera kept metal alive when Metallica was writing bad ballads.

South: Indie

Ani DiFranco, "Not a Pretty Girl"

Where & When: Predominantly female liberal arts colleges, 1995

Significance: DiFranco was the yin to Kurt Cobain's yang. Running her own indie label (Righteous Babe), she resisted the major-label brass ring and blazed a noncommercial trail for streams of other artists to follow.

West: Pop-punk

Ash, "Kung Fu"

Where & When: Bedrooms of bored, guitar-owning teenagers, 1996

Significance: Deviating Ramones-via-Green Day three-chord formula for pop-punk, similar groups began incorporating arena-rock conventions like hand-clap refrains and hooks you can hang a side of beef on. Stocked with this kind of band, the Warped Tour (returning to Pompano Beach this Sunday) still draws sold-out crowds across the country. -- DX Ferris

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Jonathan Zwickel