There was some great alt-rock music in the ’90s. I may be biased, (the mid-’90s are my wheelhouse of music) but I swear, the music destined to replace the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac on classic rock formats someday (if radio continues to exist at that point in the future) was awesome. Some of the best shows I’ve ever seen happened in the ’90s and were performed by quintessential ’90s bands: Counting Crows at the Edge, Nirvana and The Breeders at the Morocco Shrine Auditorium (I realize fans of Nirvana and those who revere the importance of Kurt Cobain may not appreciate that I consider both of those shows to have been merely “good”) and any number of amazing shows at the wonderful and sadly missed Einstein à Go-Go in Jacksonville Beach. Another great show I saw in the ’90s was Weezer and Live at Jacksonville University (outside, on some sort of covered basketball court). Weezer has clearly gone on to do what Weezer does; Wheeze, presumably. Live, on the other hand, has had trickier travels.
Certainly no one-hit wonder (22 million albums is a lot, a lot of albums to sell), Live (the name on the press release is +Live+ ) had some of the biggest hits in an entire decade. The massive radio hit “Lightning Crashes” almost wasn’t a single. “I Alone” is a great song, with a weird video (why is the drummer just menacingly lurching around?). “Turn My Head” is a beautiful, bittersweet number. “Lakini’s Juice” is heavier. +Live+ was a major power of the ’90s, pushing through to the new millennium. And then they were gone. What was supposed to be a brief hiatus turned into legal battles between the band and front man Ed Kowalczyk. The band carried on with a different singer and Kowalczyk worked on solo stuff. “The ’90s were a whirlwind,” says Kowalczyk. “The hiatus was supposed to be short and it ended up being longer, but there is a fresh energy now. We have a gratitude and a consciousness that we didn’t have then, and we have so much fun. In some ways, it feels like riding an old bike. There is a strength and confidence that comes with our experiences.”
The subject matter of a +Live+ song is worthy of extended analysis and research. Themes like the illusion of authority, social inequalities and the downtrodden and, of course, Eastern and Western religions (and, moreover, faith) typically make up the core of an album. Love is in there, too, but there aren’t any songs about girls using jelly or peaches in a can. +Live+ returned to touring fairly extensively in 2017, and while their set list is crammed full of the songs you know, what they put into them onstage now may be a bit updated. “Especially then, there was a sort of visceral intensity to our music,” explains Kowalczyk. “It was rock-and-roll and there was an edge to it, but we were having fun. We weren’t the only band making darker music back then. Now we embrace ourselves differently. It’s hard to ignore everyone smiling ear-to-ear every night.
Speaking of “visceral intensity,” what about the guy with the braided ponytail making scary faces one inch from the camera? “I watched the video for ‘I Alone’ the other day,” says Kowalczyk, “and I thought, ‘Man, relax’.
“That was our passion and I have no regrets about it, but we do it differently now. There's more sophistication now, and we're excited. The subject matter can change, but what really matters is what you can’t define—it’s that extra level of intensity you can’t put your finger on. I think we have that now.”
“Now” has the band on the road with those other ’90s alumni, Counting Crows, and with new music out and upcoming. “An EP is being mixed right now and we should have it out when the tour's over.” Things have changed in the industry since +Live+ last lived, but Kowalczyk is unfazed by the minutiae of The Man. “For us, it's liberating. We don’t have to think ahead four or five songs and look for a single—we can put music out as it comes. We're thinking in little bursts of creativity and embracing the lack of structure.” Coincidentally, that structure almost cost +Live+ their greatest hit, “Lightning Crashes,” from making it more than merely track 5 on an album. “I felt like that song was really special to me. I told the record company it should be a single, and they said it was over five minutes long and took too long to get to the chorus. It was fun remembering that.”
As for maintaining the spark, particularly as an artist and lyricist who tends to lay heavily on the drama, Kowalczyk isn’t struggling. “I am still the same person, the same songwriter,” explains Kowalczyk. “I approach music the same way I always have, as a meditation. I've always gravitated toward music that turns me inward, in a good way. I like songs that open a door that I wasn’t aware of. Music is a powerful tool and, yes, I take it seriously. I still love to do it and it’s still a mystery to me, 30-odd years later.