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Cover Story: Aerosmith

| June 1, 2009

Back To The Edge


For one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most treasured groups of “bad boys,” Aerosmith haven’t done much rockin’ or rollin’ lately. The mechanics of mobilizing their aging machine have proven more difficult than imagined, as age, health, and stop/start productivity have given the band fits. The marketing arm has no problem functioning — Aerosmith are set to push out on their umpteenth summer tour and have a deal with the “Guitar Hero” video game to promote — but the edgiest way guitarist Brad Whitford can describe their reputation these days is “We’re very undisciplined.”

Appearing: Saturday, June 13th at Alpine Valley in East Troy, WI and Friday, August 28th at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park.

This isn’t meant as a broadside on an act who have defined nasty, American guitar bands for more than 30 years. Nor is it an insinuation they’re deliberately shirking duty. Foremost, bassist Tom Hamilton underwent successful cancer treatment and was justifiably sidelined until he recovered. Guitarist Joe Perry battled knee problems, while frontman Steven Tyler’s throat and leg surgeries turned into a rehab stint for painkiller addictions. No one could be faulted for wanting to cover Whitford and drummer Joey Kramer in Bubble Wrap and throwing away the scissors.

None of it can disguise the fact — and Aerosmith aren’t making excuses — their last offering was a covers outing (2004’s Honkin’ On Bobo), which followed consecutive disappointing records, 1997’s Nine Lives and 2001’s Just Push Play. One original effort in 12 years is not the mark of a band who are near their peak. Will the road break the studio’s hex?

“We’re hoping,” Whitford says from the band’s Boston rehearsal space. “We had this one song we were going to put on the new album and are thinking in the next couple weeks of making a mix of it and posting it as a download. If that all comes together, we’d include that in the set. That’d be fun for us, too, to have something new that people would be familiar with. The other new stuff doesn’t make much sense to play unless people have gotten familiar with it.”

One of the new record’s stick points is it isn’t exactly new material. Instead of starting from scratch, Aerosmith are attempting to wrap up songs that have remained unfinished from old sessions. The tunes, perhaps feeling scorned for being ignored for so long, aren’t making it easy on the band.

“There is quite a library of songs, probably going back into the ’90s,” he says, “that we either passed on or weren’t entirely finished [with]. We’d been working on a lot of those songs and hoping quite a few of those would be on the new album when we do finish it,” Whitford chuckles. “We were hoping to have it done before the tour, but we had several setbacks with scheduling and health issues. We didn’t have time to finish it. We had to start getting ready for this tour as well.”

The guitarist sighs, “For some reason, this album doesn’t want to get completed. Every time we start to work on it, something happens.”

Perhaps in the spirit of rummaging through old boxes, this summer’s tour will revisit, rather appropriately, 1975’s classic Toys In The Attic set.

“We’re doing a lot of material that we haven’t done either before or very little in the past,” he says. “It’s kind of a lot of refreshing the memory and relearning some songs. Our setlist just hasn’t varied a whole lot over the last 20 years, so we’re going to break out some stuff people might enjoy hearing that they haven’t heard before.” Even the most ardent Blue Army supporters are in for a treat. “The last song, ‘You See Me Crying,’ we’ve never performed. The arrangement’s not terribly complex, but it’s gonna take a little getting used to.”

Never played it live?

“No. And it’s a great song,” Whitford replies, amused as well. “There’s a lot of material that has never made it to the concert stage. We figured it’s time. It’s a lot more interesting for us. I personally enjoy having a challenge like having some ‘new’ stuff. It makes it more fun. Get to focus more. It might be one or two of the more complex arrangements that may take a week or two to feel more confident about.”

Given recent history, there might be concern whether there’s enough time to flesh those out.

“I’d say right now Joe’s a little behind the eight ball because he’s still learning the parts for some of these songs,” he admits. “Like I said, some of these things we haven’t played since they were recorded. So it requires homework, and then we sit here and do more of it. He’s trying to catch up as quickly as possible.” But Perry wrote most of those songs, didn’t he? “Yeah. Oh shit, yeah — excuse me,” Whitford apologizes. “They kind of stay up in the memory banks; you just gotta dust them off. You think, ‘How did I play that? Where were my hands on the neck? How did I voice the chords?’ It all comes back.”

Isn’t there anyone around to rally you guys? “Oh, gosh, I guess it varies from day to day,” he says somewhat impishly. “We’re fairly diplomatic, but someone will step into the driver’s seat every day. You gotta crack the whip around here — lately I’ve been.”
Any uncertainty hanging about Aerosmith fans should be allayed by the trail the band are slowly picking up. Following the feelgood comeback of 1987’s Permanent Vacation, the followup Pump suggested they were a serious force because of the hard-hitting child-abuse tale “Janie’s Got A Gun.” As if the band couldn’t get any bigger, however, 1993’s Get A Grip dominated radio and MTV with an endless hit parade, though it came with a price. The triple threat of the identical “Crazy,” “Cryin’,” and “Amazing” singles boasted Alicia Silverstone and Tyler’s daughter Liv in the risque videos and seemed to teach them that slick power ballads held the keys to further spoils. The result was “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing,” the Diane Warren-penned soundtrack companion to Armageddon, which made them a hit with tween girls and “Oprah” viewers, but diminished their rock cred. Many people blame the song for the pop sheen that devoured Nine Lives and Just Push Play and their successful but uninspiring singles, “Pink” and “Jaded.”

Honkin’ On Bobo addressed this with a sequence of blues standards to retrace the band’s roadhouse origins. Bringing Toys In The Attic on tour is another step in the right direction, punctuated by the forthcoming album’s producer, Brendan O’Brien, who’s not only a favorite of Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam, but who recently helmed the new Mastodon album.

Steve Forstneger

For the complete picture, including Whitford’s thoughts on Aerosmith’s recent material, pick up the June issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

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