SAVANNAH RESIDENT RICK BOWEN VIVIDLY REMEMBERS the moment he first had the idea for his new stage show Flashback: The Classic Rock Experience.
It came a few years ago on the drive back from Columbia, S.C.’s Colonial Center. Bowen had just witnessed his first live show by famed symphonic rock group Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who’ve been packing large venues around the world for a decade with their bombastic mixture of elaborate lighting, over-the-top theatrics and rock opera-style compositions.
Dazzled by the group’s intense performance, he recalled a time —only a short while before— when his imagination had similarly been captured: as an audience member at diva Celine Dion’s celebrated Las Vegas stage show.
“I helped produce Celine Dion’s first English album,” explains Bowen, who at one time worked alongside famed pop record producer David Foster.
“So, I saw her show when I was out there. At the show, I was really intrigued with her video stuff. They had this large, 90-ft. LED screen on stage. The largest one ever made. But the videos themselves made a great impression on me. I felt truly a part of the experience. It was more than just a show.”
Bowen was in Vegas to attend a reunion of past employees of Concerts West, one of the largest show promotion companies in the world. As a key member of that firm from 1969 to 1976, he says he was regarded as an “idea man” who helped to conceive and troubleshoot major innovations in the world of large-scale events.
He lays claim to helping create the famous Royal Lipizzaner Stallion show, as well as personally handling and promoting shows by many of the biggest rock acts of that era, including Elvis Presley, The Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart and Faces, Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Three Dog Night, Chicago, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, CCR, Elton John and Black Sabbath, among others.
However, after many years away from the business, when pressed for any lucrative new ideas for rock shows with widespread appeal, Bowen told his old compatriots that he had none to offer.
“I had to admit I didn’t have any ideas, and in fact, really didn’t go see many shows anymore,” he recalls.
And yet, Bowen, who had relocated here a decade-and-a-half ago to help his Savannah-born wife recuperate from what he describes as a “catastrophic illness”, found his rusty creative gears starting to turn once more on that fateful drive back from Columbia.
“The Trans-Siberian Orchestra does a lot with a high-energy rock and roll band and a small strings section,” he says. “They use pyrotechnics, lasers, lights and all sorts of atmospheric effects that turns the whole thing into more of an experience than just a concert. But they lacked video.”
“I had what I guess you’d call an epiphany. It was something the Lord laid on me — like the proverbial light bulb going off. He said, ‘Rick, you’ve done all this classic rock music. Why don’t you do a classic rock show with these big production elements, but adding video stuff like Celine Dion used?’ All of a sudden I had the new idea they’d had been asking me for.”
Cut to a few years later, and Bowen, backed to the teeth by a cadre of private investors (almost exclusively drawn from the immediate region) is only days away from launching the first, 50-city leg of his almost preposterously ambitious salute to what he terms “the classic rock generation”.----------------- Here's the first "webisode" of an online reality-TV series documenting this tour from its inception to its conclusion:
“We’ve been blessed to have local homegrown financing for this show,” admits the creative force behind Flashback — adding that, while certain aspects of the show, such as the symphonic orchestra itself and the state-of-the-art custom lighting rig, are being assembled and prepared in California and Las Vegas, he’s been able to find a vendor for the tour’s massive, custom sound system right here in Georgia.
“We’ve tried to do as much of this regionally as we can.”
That includes the logistics of planning over 100 dates at such large, indoor arenas as Duluth’s Gwinnett Center Arena, Va.’s Hampton Coliseum, Atlantic City, N.J.’s Boardwalk Hall, and the Nassau Coliseum in NYC. It also includes building and rehearsing a core band featuring respected recruits from across the globe.
It may be surprising for locals to learn that for the past few months, in a small, nondescript office building near Sandfly, a dedicated team of hired guns from the world of arena rock have been hard at work, diligently putting their own spin on a slick, 33-song show of instantly recognizable songs by major artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Three Dog Night.
In addition to former Atlanta Rhythm Section vocalist Shaun Williamson, guitarist Jamie Humphries of The Australian Pink Floyd Show tribute band, and guitarist Phil Hilborne, who’s performed over 600 times in the London production of the hit Queen musical We Will Rock You, this band also includes Katrina Chester, who portrayed the late Janis Joplin in the acclaimed off-Broadway show Love, Janis.
Most notable, however, is the show’s “Star Lead Vocalist” Chuck Negron, best known as the front man of the original Three Dog Night. He’ll be reprising his role in that group by singing several of their hits, backed by the rock band and an 11-piece mini-orchestra — almost 30 musicians total.
“Chuck and I had remained friends since my days with Concerts West,” explains Bowen. “I ran the concept past him and he immediately said yes.”
In addition to the music, audience members will be treated to a visual spectacle that Bowen claims is unrivaled in today’s touring concert world.
He elaborates: “We’re presenting music written in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but bigger, with all the bells and whistles modern day technology allows.”
“Back then, there were no video screens. You didn’t even have moving lights! We have hundreds of moving lights, and every kind of laser that’s ever been invented. It’s the biggest laser show that’s ever gone on the road. We’ll present the music with all the integrity that was there before, but played by musicians who have studied it for years and understand it. The idea is to make it a real family experience, so that grandpa can take his grand kids to this and introduce them to his music and era.”
If it seems as though tunes by many of the most famous classic rock acts (i.e., The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) are suspicious by their absence in this extravaganza, Bowen says that’s not due to licensing problems, but by design.
“There are a lot of Beatles tribute bands out there, as well as the big Cirque du Soleil show Love. Plus, I don’t think of the Beatles as classic rock. They were more of what I would consider a pop generation band. As far as Dylan is concerned, he is still alive and touring, and so are the Stones. So, you could just go and see them.”
“The Doors aren’t performing. Janis is of course dead. Pink Floyd is not touring anymore as a group — although Roger Waters does do some Pink Floyd material in his shows. Jimi Hendrix is dead. Led Zeppelin says they won’t tour. But this music remains so popular that I think people will want to hear it in this format.”
One person who agrees with Bowen is young local guitarist and singer Thomas Claxton. An almost ubiquitous figure on the local bar and restaurant circuit, where he plays solo acoustic renditions of a wide variety of classic and modern rock favorites (as well as his own original compositions), he’s one of the only locally-based musicians to be invited to join the road band — and describes his role as “the featured backing vocalist” and a supervisor to the other four backup singers.
When reached in Mobile, Al. just before the start of final dress rehearsals (the show launches at Mobile’s Civic Center this Wednesday night, Aug. 27), Claxton says he’s certain crowds will be unprepared for the magnitude of this production — considering he was, and he’s been involved in the planning for months.
“I had prepared myself for something huge, but I finally saw the full stage setup, as I did for the first time today, my jaw just about hit the floor.”
Bowen says with a little luck, he feels Flashback could run for as more than a decade, paying tribute to a wide variety of classic rock artists and songs as they go.
“People will come out of this show dazzled by the music and the special effects. They’ll want to see it again and tell their friends about it. This can come back to towns every year and a half.”
Flashback: The Classic Rock Experience
When: 7:30 pm, Thurs., Sept. 4
Where: Savannah Civic Center
Cost: $17 - $98.00