BREWfest 2008 goes LIVE

by Jason Ankeny

While most of the acts that emerged during alternative rock's commercial heyday have long since dissolved, LIVE lives on. More than a decade after vaulting from college radio cult favorite to mainstream pop juggernaut when their breakthrough album Throwing Copper topped the Billboard charts, the group is back on tour in support of their most recent release, the odds-and-ends compilation Radiant Sea, and will headline this year's BREWfest event today.

Despite the radical transformation that's upended the pop music industry in the years since LIVE was a Top 40 staple, frontman Ed Kowalczyk said the group never truly felt a part of the mainstream anyway. "I'm not sure we've ever ‘fit in' that well," he said. "I think one of the reasons we started the band was because we wanted to do something different, left of center and, hopefully, unique."

Kowalczyk and guitarist Chad Taylor, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer and drummer Chad Gracey formed LIVE in working-class York, Pa.,  in 1985--after first coming together to play a middle school talent contest. The band continued collaborating throughout high school, adopting a series of short-lived names before settling on Public Affection in time to self-release the 1989 cassette The Death of a Dictionary on their own Action Front label. Performances at the venerable New York City punk club CBGB brought them to the attention of the fledgling Radioactive Records label, and with Talking Heads alum Jerry Harrison installed as producer, the newly-renamed LIVE recorded its debut album Mental Jewelry in 1991.

Kowalczyk's impassioned vocals and weighty lyrics (inspired by the writings of Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti) fused with his bandmates' taut, muscular rock approach to earn LIVE comparison to spiritual antecedents like U2 and R.E.M., and Mental Jewelry singles "Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)" and "Pain Lies on the Riverside" quickly found a home on post-Nirvana radio playlists. Still, while "Selling the Drama," the lead single from LIVE's 1994 follow-up Throwing Copper, topped the Modern Rock chart, few anticipated the band's crossover success--after the album's second single "I Alone" cracked the Top 40, its third release "Lightning Crashes" became an MTV fixture, and in May 1995, more than a year after its original retail release, Throwing Copper reached number one, selling in excess of eight million copies. 

LIVE's third album, 1997's Secret Samadhi, entered the charts at No. 1  but failed to match the sales or longevity of its predecessor, topping out at the two million mark as the lead single "Lakini's Juice" earned the quartet their final Top 40 hit to date. LIVE reunited with producer Harrison for 1999's The Distance to Here, which debuted at No. 4 and scored only a minor hit with "The Dolphin's Cry." The group's fifth album, simply titled V, reached stores just a week after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and while the track "Overcome" earned significant radio airplay, overall sales slumped and the album failed to achieve gold status. Although the hit single "Heaven" improved the outlook for 2003's Birds of Pray, the album spelled the end of LIVE's longtime relationship with Radioactive--their most recent studio effort, 2006's Songs from Black Mountain, appeared on Epic.

More than two decades in, Kowalczyk is sanguine about the ups and downs of LIVE's career. "We're essentially doing exactly what we did when we started out--giving our best no matter whether we're on stage or recording," he said.  

LIVE is releasing Radiant Sea on the revived Action Front, selling copies only at concerts and via the group's official website. Despite recent record industry upheaval, Kowalczyk is reluctant to say the disc heralds a permanent break with traditional brick-and-mortar distribution. "I don't think it would be wise in this day and age to say that anything we do is ‘permanent'--that's part of the beauty of it, really," he said. "Everything is changing constantly and LIVE is just trying to maintain our commitment to quality music and shows, but also change with the times and the technology. We're keeping all of our options open right now. I think it's obvious that the future is now, and that technology is offering up ways to connect to our fans that we could never have imagined 15  or so years ago when we started recording and touring."

And while BREWfest 2008 may signify a change of pace from the typical LIVE concert setting, Kowalczyk said the group won't approach the performance any differently from other gigs. "We go on stage every night as if the audience has never heard a note of LIVE. It's a ‘do or die' mentality that has served us very well," he said, cracking "We probably work a little harder than we need to sometimes."