Music News & Reviews

After two decades as a band man, Ed Kowalczyk hits the road alone

Ed Kowalczyk has revamped his career, from being immersed in a band, Live, to going solo and occasionally acoustic.
Ed Kowalczyk has revamped his career, from being immersed in a band, Live, to going solo and occasionally acoustic.

Ed Kowalczyk calls his current tour "I Alone Acoustic," a curious title for a song stylist who, for the first two decades of his career, was none of those things.

For starters, the singer, songsmith and guitarist used to be a band man. There was no "I" or "alone" to anything he did. As frontman for the York, Pa., rock troupe Live, he ignited radio waves from 1988 to 2009 with a highly electric but often spiritually inclined brand of grunge-based rock. So there goes "acoustic" as well.

Yet there is a decidedly nostalgic reverence in the tour moniker, as I Alone was one of the centerpiece tunes to what many consider Live's critical and commercial zenith, the 1994 sophomore album Throwing Copper.

Today is different.

Having walked away from Live four years ago in a nasty split amid no small amount of litigation, Kowalczyk, 42, released his second and newest solo album, The Flood and the Mercy, late last month. There are a few suggestions of a more moderated charge (especially midtempo fare like Bottle of Anything and Holy Water Tears) and a few new musical pals to spar with (Rachel Yamagata and R.E.M. alumnus Peter Buck), but the better part of the record adheres to the huge, layered sound that fortified Live.

Despite all references to the contrary, I Alone Acoustic is a slogan of truth. When he stops in Lexington on Monday for a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Kowalczyk will bid adieu to the band format and unplug the amps. Except for minimal accompaniment (some dates enlist bassist Chris Heerlein), he will operate as a solo acoustic trouper.

"My writing process really starts with an acoustic guitar and trying to come up with the best lyrics and melody that I can," Kowalczyk said. "As for my work in Live, same approach. All the way through the career, all the songs would start there. So when the music was scaled back for this tour, it was a really natural transition. It was also something I really got into.

"I was kind of surprised at how much I liked it. I had done some acoustic performances for promotion and radio shows, that kind of thing over the years. But I had never done a full concert like that, and it was a real challenge. It was a new challenge to get up there and have no backup or very minimal accompaniment."

Probably the only thing that outweighed Kowalczyk 's desire to play acoustic was the need to establish his own artistic identity, and that meant severing ties with Live. The parting wasn't pleasant. The remaining members sued Kowalczyk over publishing deals and use of the band's name.

"I definitely value all of the experiences that I've had in Live," he said. "I really grew up in that band. We all did. I formed my craft over the many years and opportunities that came our way, so I'm very grateful. But I'm at a new chapter now.

"I got to a point where, after 20 years of sort of doing it the same way over and over again, I had become kind of malaise, kind of set in the way I made music. So I just went for something totally different. And grabbing an acoustic guitar for my shows, ... that's really what I did in the first place. But this time it was an act that heralded this new chapter in my life. It made the statement that I was going to go back to the roots of what I got into music for, which was to write the best songs that I can and sing the best I can, regardless of how the music is produced or what band might be around it — if there is a band, that is. I think the fans were ready, too."

What about the legal wreckage left in the wake of Kowalczyk's departure?

"We've all moved on. There were definitely some tumultuous moments there. But from my perspective, regardless of what anybody might have read or seen about any of that, this was about growing into a new phase regardless of what was associated with all the legal stuff. Again, from my perspective, this was all about moving forward. It was all about being excited and keeping things creative."

Kowalczyk won't be entirely solo Monday, though. He will share the WoodSongs bill with the Grammy-winning gospel vocal troupe The Blind Boys of Alabama. Their respective musical styles differ considerably, but Kowalczyk says he finds numerous links in his music to themes in the Blind Boys' repertoire.

"There is definitely a spiritual kinship there with their approach and with what I've always tried to do in my music, which is to touch upon those chords that are universal between people, the chords that bind people together. The Blind Boys are excellent at that. Their style is just incredible. It's a dream come true to have the opportunity to collaborate and be on the same stage with them."


'WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour': Blind Boys of Alabama, Ed Kowalczyk

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 11.

Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

Tickets: $20. Sold through the Lyric's box office, (859) 280-2218 or Learn more: