Who says you can't be a rocker after 50, or even 60? Take it from Mick Jagger, who's still touring at 65, or the members of Aerosmith, who are pushing 60 yet have a new album in the works and a headlining role in a new edition of the video game Guitar Hero. And aging rock stars aren't the only ones still jamming: Scores of baby boomers across the country are playing in garage bands, booking gigs, and performing for fun and maybe a little profit.
When it comes to boomer bands, success isn't defined by sold-out stadiums or fat paychecks. Money is beside the point, says Sean Lee, 56, lead vocalist and rhythm guitar player for the Wicker Lee Band in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. "What matters to us is seeing people get up, dance, and have a good time," says Lee, an Alexandria, Va., government contractor. "We're not trying to be famous." That's not to say minor fame doesn't come calling for some lucky bands. The Dallas band Take5 parlayed its experience playing bars and private parties into an opening spot in a local summer concert series. That led to an invitation to open for Jefferson Starship and Survivor a few years ago (a $2,500 gig). "It felt like we had arrived," says David Davis, the group's rhythm guitarist and sometime vocalist.
Like Take5, most of these bands find their niche playing at local watering holes on the weekends, performing classic rock covers along the lines of Heart's "Barracuda" and Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" (although the Accounting Crows, a group of mostly over-50 Connecticut rockers, changed the lyrics to "Born to Be Mild"). Bands might take home $250 to $500 from a bar show (or a portion of the cover receipts), $1,000 from a wedding or holiday party, and slightly more for a New Year's Eve gig. That's not insignificant, but split four or five ways, it's practically pocket change.
Shot and a beer. Take5's lead singer, Susan Retter, puts it this way: "It's more like an expensive hobby," she says. "After gas, guitar strings, drumsticks, beer, and the occasional shot of tequila, we probably break even." Of course, instruments aren't included in that estimate. Davis says the band's equipment cost upwards of $20,000—a "conservative estimate."
But cost is generally not an obstacle for the 78 million-strong baby boomers, who make up the nation's largest consumer group. With stable careers and kids often out of the house, they have more free time—not to mention disposable income. Many bands will even play free of charge or work charity events into their schedules. Therein lies the advantage of playing in a band in your 50s instead of your 20s, Retter says: "Now, we can afford the toys." Mark Zampino of the Accounting Crows calls it "gear lust." One guitar, he says, is never enough.
The Crows, all accountants save for Zampino, occasionally take their show on the road. Thanks to industry connections—and that cheeky name—the band has been invited to play at business and accounting conferences in cities including Orlando, Phoenix, and San Diego. "We travel together and have a great time—it's like Spinal Tap," says Zampino, who works in public affairs for the Connecticut Society of CPAs and handles keyboards, guitar, and vocals. "We're getting a taste of the rock-and-roll lifestyle at the ripe old age of 50." The band does classic rock covers with an emphasis on Beatles tunes. The Crows also play a standing gig at a nearby bar and grill every April 15. The set list always includes "Tax Man" and "Taking Care of Business."
Amps on 11. Although boomer bands are typically free of rock-star egos, they're not completely immune to drama. The Wicker Lee Band was born in 2007 when conflicts led three members to split from a former band, the Gene Pool Zombies. Lacking a lead guitarist, Wicker Lee posted an ad on craigslist emphasizing one requirement: The person shouldn't play loud. Take5, whose founding members were coworkers in the late 1990s, vets new talent by spending hours with potential bandmates. "We tell them what kind of band we are—that we consider each other family—and to keep their ego in check. And no heavy drinking or drugs whatsoever," says Retter. On three occasions, she said, matches didn't work out.
For the matchless—that is, musicians without a band—dozens of music stores nationwide offer the Weekend Warriors program. Essentially, it serves as a band matchmaker. The goal is to round up musicians who abandoned their guitars for careers and kids, says Skip Maggiora, who runs Skip's Music in Sacramento, Calif. "We try to make it easy, so it takes a minimal amount of time and effort to get them playing again," he says. The four-week classes, which cost $100, start with an open jam, progress to a weekly coaching and rehearsal session, and culminate in a concert. The stores supply the equipment (with the idea that participants will eventually buy their own instruments).
There are no mirrors in the store's rehearsal room, Maggiora says. Instead, old album covers line the walls. "When they pick up a guitar and start playing a song, we don't want them to feel self-conscious," he says. "We want them to walk out of rehearsal on cloud nine." Bands typically stick to the basics: classic songs that are relatively easy to play, such as "Proud Mary" and "Whipping Post." However, Skip's Music has one song on its no-play list: the ubiquitous "Mustang Sally."
Second adolescence. There are also classes for the inexperienced. Phil Rowley of the North County Academy of Music Performance in Vista, Calif., offers an eight-week class—similar to Maggiora's program—that caters to both experienced musicians and novices. Although such classes have long been popular with men, Rowley says he's enrolling almost as many women this year. They include 52-year-old Susan Corrales, who took the class to learn some rock tunes on the piano so she could jam with her teenage sons, and Sharen Wahl, who signed up for the class with a desire to play drums and no experience whatsoever.
Older adults looking to play concert music rather than rock-and-roll might consider the New Horizons program, a national network of 120 amateur bands, choirs, and orchestras made up mostly of retirees (the average age is 67). Don Coffman, a music professor and director of the Iowa City New Horizons Band, says the focus is more on teaching than perfecting. "We try to attract people who have never played or people who used to play. The idea is that you don't have to be all that great," he says. For many players, the benefits go far beyond music education: Studies show that playing a musical instrument relieves stress and treats some neurological conditions. The program also provides plenty of social opportunities. Says Coffman: "The popularity of these bands is an indication that boomers are not just going to sit around—they're keeping sharp and active."
You don't have to tell that to the Accounting Crows: They're already planning a world tour.