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DOWN WITH CLASSIC ROCK? 

The bands are new. But on the radio, the songs remain the same

Down is coming to town Tuesday, September 22. On paper, the New Orleans-based hard-rock/metal band should be playing the Quicken Loans Arena, not the much smaller House of Blues. The group's "Stone the Crow" is one of the great classic-rock anthems of its generation, worthy of Skynyrd. It's a haymaker of a song, with a mournful southern-rock riff, haunted vocals from a tortured soul and guitar harmonies that'll give you goosebumps. Down should own Cleveland. Because Cleveland's a classic rock town.

A full 35 years after Aerosmith got their wings, it's still easy to hear "Train Kept A-Rollin'" twice a day on local radio stations, even if you're just flipping through the dial. The Black Keys only recently supplanted Pink Floyd tribute Wish You Were Here as the top-drawing local band (and that distinction is subject to interpretation). Classic-rock beacon WNCX 98.5 FM was the top-ranked rock station in Arbitron's Spring 2009 Cleveland-Akron's ratings.

"[Cleveland] used to be a current rock town," says John Gorman, a media consultant and radio historian who was program director of WMMS in the '70s and early '80s, when a local station could help break a song nationally. "It still is, but it's not reflected on radio."

After a golden age, Cleveland classic-rock fans decided their hearts and ears were full. Shaggy bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd helped establish FM radio, making it a place where deep album cuts found new life. Throughout the '70s, long-haired dudes jammed out hot licks and let big riffs rip. Sweaty shredders like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath owned an age when people wanted to rock and roll all night and party every day. In 1979, the World Series of Rock drew more than 85,000 hard-rocking heads to Cleveland's Lakefront Stadium for a bill that included Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Journey, Thin Lizzy and AC/DC. The wave was cresting.

By the '80s, big rock's long solos — guitar, drums and bass — were becoming hard to take. Zeppelin had crashed. Sabbath turned gray. Aerosmith went off the rails. Many album-oriented rock (AOR) stations were concentrating on classic rock and playing maybe two new songs each hour. In 1981, Dick Hungate, program director of Philadelphia's AOR station WYSP, stopped playing current cuts and went with all old stuff. Classic Rock Radio as a distinct format was born.

Throughout the '80s, classic-rock and AOR stations added new acts with increasing rarity: the Police, .38 Special, Guns N' Roses. Today, the classic-rock format is a nostalgia-delivery device, and it's hard to find anything newer than a single from the first Black Crowes album. The most recent song in WNCX's Top 100 tracks is Gregg Allman's "I'm No Angel" from 1987. In some parts of the country, classic rock — sometimes referred to as "heritage" rock — is practically the new folk music; kids are likely to know more words to "Stairway to Heaven" than a trad song like "Wild Rover."

Gorman says there are two types of classic-rock listeners: those for whom the music was the soundtrack of the best part of their lives, and those who can't or won't try to relate to modern music. "That's the argument the companies will always use to say why the playlist is so tight," he says. "If you play something unfamiliar, you're taking a chance of somebody hitting a button and going to another station. Classic rock has turned into a pretty tight greatest-hits format"

Updating playlists is a tough call. Akron's WONE 97.5 has been known to play Metallica and Green Day on the weekends. More recently it's added Creed and vanilla post-Nickelback bands to the mix. But contemporary rock radio ignores a whole scene that seems like a can't-miss combination with the classics. Whether you call it rawk, stoner rock or stoner metal, many of the bands crawling from club to club might have had a shot as an opening act on an arena tour once.

Given the chance, any number of bands could be the next Nugent. Since hair metal died and grunge broke, the world has seen a groundswell of groups that preferred Black Sabbath to Boston and Zeppelin to Nirvana. (See sidebar for some of the best.) Down might be the biggest band of its breed, but there are countless others, from Australia's Wolfmother to Cleveland's Red Giant.

Red Giant records for Detroit's Small Stone label, which specializes in the kind of rock that used to pour out of beat-up, smoke-filled vans. Small Stone owner Scott Hamilton thinks new classic rock-style bands deserve a shot at the airwaves.

"I would love to hear that stuff next to Skynyrd and Led Zep," he says. "It makes sense. It is the same genre. It sounds right. And it feels right. I have made many attempts [to get my bands on the radio], but nothing seemed to work. I used to get feedback from some of the DJs that I was friendly with around town. They all liked what I gave them, but their hands were usually tied by the music directors and corporate broadcast consulting firms. They can't play what they like — just what is on the playlist. Both Sirius and XM have been friendly thus far. They have so many different genre stations that you can usually slide into one of them — but never on their classic-rock channels."

Program directors at WNCX and WONE declined to comment for the story.

Granted, while bands like Down are a perfect match for classic-rock radio, others are a hard sell to baby boomers who listen to music to relax. Many are closer to Blue Cheer than Blue Öyster Cult. And like it or not, you have to acknowledge there's something magic about classic rock. It's music that fans have listened to every day for decades.

"Listen to Bad Company, something like that," says Down guitarist Pepper Keenan. "Fantastic songwriting skills. Musicians who had skills and dedicated their life to playing their instrument or singing. Just a wide knowledge of music and not so narrow-minded. You had to play your shit. You couldn't fix it in the studio. You had to be good. That's the same approach Down uses."

But even with major-label backing — the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic WEA group — Down play to 1,000-2,000 fans a night. Keenan has seen veteran classic-rock concertgoers warm up to the band, and he thinks radio listeners could warm up to new fire-breathing groups.

"I know they would," says Keenan. "I guarantee it. It's just the idea of convincing somebody to listen to it or getting it in their hand to where they'll play it. That's the record label and the industry's job, and sometimes they don't do it well. So sometimes you end up being an underground band, and then people hear you 20 years later and feel like they got ripped off."

Another reason Down should own Cleveland: Cleveland is a metal town, and Down is a metal supergroup. Singer Phil Anselmo is best known for fronting Pantera, the last great, arena-packing metal band. (Bassist Rex Brown, also from Pantera, is sitting out this tour due to acute pancreatitis and problems with his gall bladder.) Kirk Windstein made his bones in sludge lords Crowbar. Drummer Jimmy Bower plays with seminal underground group Eyehategod.

Guitarist Keenan made a cameo on Metallica's cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesday's Gone." Metallica's James Hetfield is a longtime fan of Keenan's other band, Corrosion of Conformity (COC), a long-running North Carolina outfit that evolved from a hardcore group to a diesel-burning biker-rock band.

If "Stone the Crow" isn't the best new-school classic-rock song, then the honor certainly belongs to COC's "Stare Too Long," which features stand-and-salute slide guitar by Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band and Gov't Mule. Unlike many newer classic-style groups, Down's songs weren't written as homages.

"It just kinda happened," explains Keenan. "I was always into melodic things. And 'Stone the Crow' — we were all on the same page. We were all kids from New Orleans. We weren't from Berlin. We listened to Sabbath and melodic-y, blues-based kinda bands. That's where it all came from. We had the story to tell; it kind of made sense. It fit the melody — just livin' hard, piecing it all together, there it was."

Down qualify as classic rock whether you listen to the music or just measure by age. The off-again, on-again band has only three records, though it dates back to 1991 when the friends started jamming. The group's debut, 1995's NOLA, unexpectedly went platinum. But Pantera was the hottest metal band in the land at the time, and the more metallic Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow didn't arrive until 2002. Anselmo has claimed that Elektra was so scared Down would take off and cut into Pantera business that the company sabotaged the band by under-promoting it.

The group's most recent album, Down III: Over the Under, arrived in 2007 and sold out multiple shipments in Northeast Ohio stores in its first weeks. It has a foundation of chainsaw-riff songs like "I Scream," but balances them with some album-rock moments. One review described "Nothing in Return (Walk Away)" — a quaking-keyboard nod to Zeppelin's "No Quarter" — as "Led Sabbath."

The band has been on the road since the album's release. By now, says Keenan, they're tired of the material. On this tour, they're concentrating on songs from the first record, the band's most accessible. "Stone the Crow" remains their signature song, even if it's mostly a live phenomenon.

"If it gets on the radio, great," says Keenan. "That was never part of COC or Down's plan. We are very capable of writing songs that should be on the radio. If it doesn't, that ain't stoppin' us."

dferris@clevescene.com

The Options:

If you need a break from "Baba O'Reilly" and "Gimme Three Steps," try these newer bands that sound just right next to your longtime favorites. Start with Down's "Stone the Crow" and COC's "Stare Too Long" (discussed in the story) — and we'll give you 10 more.

Various Artists

Sucking the 70s 1 and 2

(Small Stone)

smallstone.com

A who's-who of indie/stoner rawk cover dozens of AOR warhorses on these two-disc collections. Clevelanders Disengage nail "Communication Breakdown," and Red Giant sets fire to "Saturday Night Special." Other rock-solid renditions include "Cross Eyed Mary," "Walk Away" and "Working Man." Recommended if you dig radio staples.

Priestess

"Lay Down" from Hello Master

(RCA)

myspace.com/priestessband

If this Canadian quartet's mean riffs and wailing solos don't get you, singer Mikey Heppner's valkyrie pipes will. RIYD: Deep Purple.

Coheed and Cambria

"Welcome Home" from Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness

(Columbia)

myspace.com/coheedandcambria

Frontman Claudio Sanchez wields a double-necked Gibson like Jimmy Page, rocks a giant afro and leads his band through space-opera concept albums. On this menacing six-minute march, he sings like Rush's Geddy Lee.

Year Long Disaster

"Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu" from Year Long Disaster (Volcom)

myspace.com/yearlongdisaster

Singer-guitarist Daniel Davies is the son of the Kinks' Dave Davies, but his band plays like the offspring of Zeppelin. This song's central riff is thunder on four hooves.

Mastodon

"Divinations" from Crack the Skye

(Reprise)

myspace.com/mastodon

This Atlanta quartet has sharper chops than a butcher, and this track storms like a heavy metal cover of Pink Floyd's "Sheep." They're known for elementally themed concept albums, and their latest, Crack the Skye, makes hard-hitting nods to King Crimson and Zappa.

Fu Manchu

"Knew It All Along" from We Must Obey

(Century Media)

myspace.com/fumanchu

Known for songs about pinball, women and weed, this long-running California quartet is the quintessential stoner-rock band. This jam's resonant riff has all the attitude of UFO at its baddest. If you don't like the tune, you don't like rock and roll.

Clutch

"The Mob Goes Wild" from Blast Tyrant

(DRT Entertainment)

myspace.com/clutchband

This jamming, jazz-influenced band's high-RPM political screed connects the dots between Iraq and Vietnam with lyrics like "Condoleezza Rice is nice/But I prefer A Roni" and "Everybody move to Canada/Smoke lots of pot." RIYD: Nugent.

Kyuss

"Hurricane" from ... And The

Circus Leaves Town

(Rhino/Elektra)

myspace.com/kyussmyspace

These Californians are considered the fathers of the stoner-rock movement, and pundit Chuck Klosterman once accurately observed that they sound more like Black Sabbath than Black Sabbath does.

Wolfmother

"Dimension" from Wolfmother

(Interscope)

myspace.com/wolfmother

Wolfmother spit out references to purple haze and white unicorns between mercifully brief flute riffs and songs that climax in Styx-style keyboard workouts. But mostly, the band flies like Zeppelin, and big-beat songs like "Dimension" will leave a dent in your stereo.

Suede Brothers

"Lady Luck" from Suede Brothers

(Bad Breaker)

myspace.com/thesuedebrothers

This Cleveland trio has an average age of 20, and they've spent every one of their young years eating album rock for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tasty riffs make seven-minute rockers like "Lady Luck" feel half as long. RIYD: the James Gang.

More by D.X. Ferris

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