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Hall and Oates: Still Relevant. Still Rocking.

Photo (partial) by © Gary Harris (2008) found on Wikipedia.org

Hall and Oates use the internet and collaboration with young bands and artists to infuse their classic songs with modern sensibilities. This is why their concerts are filled with fans that were barely born when those songs were written.

Hall and Oates have conquered enviable territory as a rock and soul musical duo. After decades of hits and after being considered a “guilty pleasure” by a rock critical establishment with a penchant for getting things wrong, they’ve affirmed and confirmed that they possess something that is difficult to measure, but profoundly invaluable: relevancy.

A plethora of young bands and singer/songwriters, including Brandon Flowers, Chromeo, Travis McCoy, and Fitz and The Tantrums, along with many others that Daryl Hall has featured as guests on his internet program, Live From Daryl’s House, have cited that duo as a major source of influence and inspiration. Hits from the '80s like "You Make My Dreams Come True," “Private Eyes”m and “Kiss On My List” are becoming soundtrack staples in indie and mainstream movies, such as 500 Days of Summer, She’s Out My League, and Knight and Day.

These days, Hall and Oates have acquired a young audience, gaining hipster chic status, and thanks to a hybrid following of nostalgic boomers, curious teenagers, and enthusiastic 20-somethings, have been quietly selling out every show on the two year Do What You Want, Be What You Are tour in support of their retrospective box set that Daryl Hall promises, “tells our story both musically and textually.”

When I interviewed John Oates over the telephone (February 2011), he spoke with audible pride about winning a youthful audience that ensures and protects their music’s vitality. “It is the ultimate goal of a songwriter to write a song that continues to touch new people for 30 years. It gives a timeless quality to your music.”

Daryl Hall recently won a webby award for his monthly internet broadcast, Live From Daryl’s House, in which he performs duets with a different musical guest each month from the comfortable quarters of his home. Live From Daryl’s House is an innovation that demonstrates the power of the internet more than most of the sideshow distraction and amateur culture of the blogosphere and YouTube. Visitors are empowered to go to a free concert each month, and highlights include Hall and Smokey Robinson improvising “Ooh Baby Baby” after “Sara Smile”, and Chromeo talk boxing their way through the funk of “I Can’t Go For That”.

Every year in Aspen, Colorado John Oates holds a songwriters festival that brings together rising stars like Donovan Frankenreiter, Matt Nathanson, and The Bird and The Bee, who released a Hall and Oates tribute album. Oates explains that “pop music moves forward only through cross-generational collaboration” and that it was always important for him and Daryl Hall to “continue the tradition of American music” by “keeping one foot in the old school, while moving one foot into the new school.”

If Marshal McLuhan is correct in his famous maxim that “the medium is the message”, Hall and Oates may have a greater influence and importance than most artists and bands who try to change the world, or at least smear their fingerprint on it, with socially conscience lyrics, acts of personal and public rebellion, and political posturing.

Without constantly beating their chests, Hall and Oates are demonstrating how to not only be cross-generational, but also simultaneously multi-epochal. Their hits and the influences that they wear on their sleeve – Philly Soul, Motown, Memphis Stax – are a reference point to the greatness of historic American black music, from Doo Wop to Dance. Their current vibrancy and musical output keeps them balanced in the present. John Oates recently released an Americana solo album recorded in Nashville titled Mississippi Mile, and Hall, while continuing to broadcast from the internet, will release a solo album in the fall. Their consistent collaboration with younger bands and artists, insistence on always “infusing old songs with modern sensibilities”, as Oates explains, and Hall’s pioneering use of new media, guarantees that they will have a place in the future.

The complex project of Hall and Oates is an impressive and substantive presentation of how to keep tradition alive and honor posterity, while relevantly moving forward into a rapidly changing future. The ability to simultaneously progress and preserve is rare and instructive to a culture dedicated to tearing down its traditions and losing its identity in the name of “progression”, which too often means the all trumping obsession with wealth, power, and efficiency.

In business, the middle-class must die for the sake of the globalized growth of multi-national corporations, which means cheaper goods but fewer jobs at home. In higher education, the liberal arts are collateral damage to expanding and expensive schools that must keep enrollment numbers up, fundraising high, and favor with stimuli-starved students. In the media, sustained attention to one story, investigative reporting, and foreign bureaus are murdered on the perpetually accelerating news cycle that spins at the speed of the wheels on a Harley on the highway.

Finding a way to progress and preserve at the same time is crucial to the survival of American institutions and culture, and while Hall and Oates, or any pop group for that matter, may be an unlikely source of instruction, they do present a model of blending what was great about the past and what is good about the present with what promises to be great in the future. This may be one reason, among others, that the duo’s music resonates with a younger audience that desires something that has longevity and has built a legacy, but wants to be spoken to in terms that they experientially and emotionally understand.

“Infusing old songs with modern sensibilities,” as Oates calls it, is simply a way of explaining what you do in language that young people, who weren’t around when Hall and Oates began doing what it is that they do, will not only comprehend, but feel. Hall and Oates, therefore, use the internet, updated versions of their classic songs, and collaboration with young bands and artists, which is why when they play a song that charted around the time half their audience was born, it doesn’t seem like an artifact from a lost age or a nostalgic souvenir from a bygone era.

On 26 June 2011 I saw Hall and Oates in concert for the second time in a year. A year earlier, I was among the crowd at the Chicago Theatre, located in the city’s South Loop that swirls with activity from college students studying at the nearby campuses, tourists shopping in the nearby business district, professionals in suits filing in and out of offices in high rises, and working people in uniforms cleaning streets, washing windows, and waiting tables. The show was sold out and the diverse crowd, ranging in age from 16 to 60, stood on their feet for the opening notes of the first song, “Maneater”, and didn’t sit down until they got into their cars to drive home.

A year later, and just a few weeks ago, I was driving with my girlfriend an hour and a half to Ravinia Festival to see the Hall and Oates show. Ravinia is an outdoor concert amphitheater with a 3,200 seat pavilion surrounded by 36 acres of picnic grounds located in Highland Park, Illinois, a rich northern suburb of Chicago where the median income is well over $100,000 and the business elite, along with many professional athletes that at one time included Michael Jordan, make their home.

The show was also sold out, which meant that the main parking lot next to Ravinia, was filled to capacity by the time we made it there. Several miles from the concert venue are assorted park-and-ride lots where attendees can park their cars and hop a bus to the concert.

Almost immediately after hopping onto the bus, it was obvious that the Ravinia audience was and would be different from the Chicago Theatre crowd. Middle-aged and elderly couples in designer labels, holding wine bottles and picnic baskets and speaking in hushed, library tones sat on the bus staring ahead, typing into cell phones, or, no kidding, reading Amazon Kindles.

As I stood on a Pace bus, holding onto a pole in the middle of the aisle, looking out at the multi-million dollar homes with manicured lawns, I realized that driving from Indiana through Chicago freeway traffic, parking miles away from the concert venue, and subsequently catching a bus to said venue is an awful lot to go through for a concert. It made me wonder, is it worth it? Is it ever worth it to fight traffic, deal with the obnoxious behavior of any crowd, which I myself have been guilty of many times, and pay a hefty ticket fee to see and hear live renditions of songs I can enjoy in the comfort of my home at almost no cost?

The answer to that question lies with the performers, and Hall and Oates had their work ahead of them to eclipse the hassle of merely getting to our seats in the 20th row of the pavilion.

Before Hall, Oates, and their band could weigh into the discussion, however, my girlfriend and I made our way through the open grounds of people in linen pants sitting on blankets by candlelight, pouring Champaign, and applying bug spray to their arms with the earnestness of a doctor sanitizing a scalpel.

There wasn’t a concession stand. There was a large cafeteria service style restaurant where music listeners had their choice of carefully packaged, overly priced personal pizzas, beef and chicken skewers, and sushi rolls. The typical variety of sodas, waters, beers and wine were available, along with $30 bottles of Sake. Eating sushi while listening to Hall croon away on “Say It Isn’t So” just wouldn’t be right without a little Sake to wash it down. A garden dining area bordered the cafeteria from the concert grounds. Ornate metal tables on stoney ground with shade umbrellas provided the seating for concert goers who picked away at their food. One man was wearing a beautifully crafted gray suit, while another had his sweater tied around his shoulders as if he just missed a casting call for Zack Morris on Saved By the Bell.

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