By Matt Mueller One of Justin Hayward's earliest memories of being in America with The Moody Blues comes courtesy of the Midwest. And unsurprisingly, it's a chilly one.
"We were due to do a show over in Minneapolis – the first show – and the gear didn't turn up," Hayward recalled. "So we started on the second show, up your way somewhere. I don't remember where, but Wisconsin is certainly one of the first bits of America I remember being in. And man, it was cold. I remember that; it was the winter of 1968."
Over 40 years later, the legendary band's singer, songwriter and guitarist returns to Milwaukee for a show at the Marcus Center's Vogel Hall on Sunday, Nov. 16. Unfortunately, it hasn't gotten much warmer. One thing is certainly different this time around, though: Hayward arrives in Milwaukee by himself, taking the chance in between tours with The Moody Blues (the band was in town last fall and is heading on a UK tour next year) to do a special acoustic tour, mixing his solo work with the band's hits.
Before he takes the stage, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with Hayward about looking back at almost 50 years of The Moody Blues, his latest solo work "Spirits of the Western Sky" – his first solo studio album since 1996 – and recalling the worst gig that he can remember.
OMC: The Moody Blues have stuck together for so impressively long. How have you guys managed to stick together and continue touring and producing work?
JH: The three of us that are left from the old days are the three guys who really want to do it. In the '80s and '90s, we really got to relish the idea of tours. We're really enjoying exploring The Moody Blues catalogue, and we're enjoying songs that we'd only really worked on for a couple of days in the studio and working them out on stage and getting to enjoy them properly. It's an interesting thing. Our problem in The Moody Blues is never what to play; it's what to leave out because there's so much material.
OMC: What's been your favorite new exploration into one of your songs recently?
JH: This tour that I'm on now is my acoustic tour. I'm bringing out my guitars from home, the guitars I wrote these songs on. The most interesting thing, just recently, is that I do a couple of songs from the late '60s and early '70s that was really quite a troubled time for me in my own life. A lot of changes going on. This tour is helping me to understand those songs a little better, and they sound so much sweeter.
We've never done them on stage with The Moodys anyway; I do quite a few things in my solo show that we've never done on stage with the band. But to have the sound of the guitar where you wrote the song, that's a lovely thing to experience on stage.
You know, I love The Moody Blues; it's a great big production. But once those two drummers get going, it's loud, man. But with this acoustic show, you can really hear every nuance. For The Moodys, I have to use electric guitar to rise to that volume a lot of the time, whereas with this solo show, I can really savor the sound of the acoustic guitars, and I'm getting back to exactly the emotions I felt when I wrote these songs.
OMC: There was a 17-year hiatus between your last solo album and your latest, "Spirits of the Western Sky." What was going on in that almost two-decade period, and were you working on "Spirits of the Western Sky" throughout that period?
JH: During that time, I was collecting a lot of songs. We did make a couple of Moodys albums, so that was happening as well. We did "Strange Times" and a holiday album called "December." But also I was appointed by Universal as the gatekeeper to the Moody's catalogue, so I mixed three DVDs for Universal and Eagle Rock during that time. I did the Isle of Wight, the Murray Lerner film about The Moody Blues there. I did a lot of remastering for Universal too.
I was just spending so much time in the studio; it was actually the engineer that said to me, "Listen, you have all of these songs; why don't we just start now and put all this stuff down properly?" The fact is I couldn't see the prospect of a new Moody Blues album on the horizon, so I think this was the best and most honest thing I could do. I could've done some solo work and called it Moody Blues, but that wouldn't be that honest. This was the best way to do it.
OMC: Was it interesting looking back those old videos and albums? How does it feel, as you're growing older, to look revisit those days?
JH: Some of the early albums I was listening to, I kept thinking, "How did we do that?" I think it was because we had a very generous record company that allowed us a lot of studio time and indulged us so we could take the time in the studio. We weren't under any time limits, and we also didn't have any A&R guy standing over us, demanding hits or telling us how to make records. We could just do our own thing and stand or fall based on that.
The most remarkable one was the films from '69 and '70 times, particularly the Isle of Wight show from 1970 because it's really the only snapshot of The Moody Blues in that era, which many consider to be the best time of the band. I'm so pleased it exists because we did very little promotion. We were not celebrities, and we hardly did any interviews in those days; we just relied on the records and a bit of touring. So I'm very pleased some of these films exist because they're real snapshots in time.
OMC: Your process behind "Spirits of the Western Sky" took you to Nashville and Italy, two very different places. What was the thought there, and how did the album come together?
JH: You're absolutely right; they couldn't be more different really. I had been working for Universal at the studio in Italy, and it had become my home really. My engineer Alberto had become my best friend.
I was working there so much, but there was a tribute to The Moody Blues called "Moody Bluegrass." I'm glad to say that I've always been welcome in Nashville at songwriter showcases and things like that over the years. Anyways, these bluegrass boys and girls made this tribute album – nothing to do with The Moody Blues at all – but when they wanted to do a "Moody Bluegrass 2," they asked me if I would do a song on it. I said, "Sure! I'd love to, in the bluegrass style." I asked if I could use it on my own album as well.
I went down to Ricky Skaggs' studio – he was incredibly generous with his guitars and things like that – and put three tracks down with these kids. It was sensational; we did it in just one afternoon. That's the way they work down there; you just play it through, and they'd say, "You like it?" And they'd learn it in an instant. Bluegrass is such an honest form of American music that it really appealed to me.
OMC: Also on this album is "On The Road to Love," which you performed and wrote with Kenny Loggins. How did that come together?
JH: I had met Kenny maybe once before, and we were at the same hotel in Arizona somewhere. He was in the middle of a tour, and I was just starting a tour. We just met in the hotel, and it was just one of those things. You're sitting and talking, and you say, "We must do something together sometime!" And Kenny said, "Why not now?" (laughs) So we did. We went to the room, and we wrote a song.
We were actually writing it for his album, which I don't believe was ever released. So the song just sat there, and when I was working on my album, I wrote to him and asked if I could do the song. He said, "Sure! Great!" So we did it by Dropbox, sending different parts across; I did a demo, he enhanced that demo, I sent it back to him, he added some vocal harmonies on it and then sent it back to me. It was just a joy to do because every time he sent something back, it would be great and make the song better.
OMC: You just released the live performance "Spirits ... Live – Live at the Buckhead Theatre" on DVD, Blu-ray and CD. What, for you, makes a great live performance?
JH: I think you have to create an atmosphere of magic in the room, and that depends on the audience. You can't do it alone. You can't set up in a recording studio and expect to capture that magic. And that's why I think that the boys and girls that can create that in a venue or room will be the ones to continue and have long-lasting careers. It just needs some kind of spark, and the audience has to give you that. They have to be willing to enter into that with you.
OMC: Now, for the flip side of that question: What's the worst performance that you've ever gone through?
JH: We were coming on stage in Philadelphia one night into a big amphitheater building, and the stage was just scaffolding with some boards on it. This was long before you had proper lights or even proper sound. But there was a big crowd there. Ray Thomas with his flute was in front of me, and as we were walking on, I thought, "Where on Earth did he go?" And he just completely disappeared down a hole in the stage, in the scaffolding, and he was wedged with his flute broken in this hole. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry; we did both.
Anyway, we pulled poor old Ray out. The crowd was starting to stamp their feet and get very impatient; I don't think we were the only act on. Mike Pinder said, "Listen, Ray's fallen, and his flute is broken. We really need it for 'Tuesday Afternoon' and that kind of stuff. Has anybody by any chance got a flute?" And some guy ran up to the front with a flute! And Ray played it. I can't believe some guy brought a flute to a gig, but you get 20,000 people together, maybe one of them does have something like that.