By Steve Morse
Boston is coming home. After setting attendance marks around the country --including a record 82,000 fans at the Texxas Jam in June --the band tonight begins an unprecedented nine shows at the Worcester Centrum. That is five more nights than any group has ever booked during a single stretch there. And it is only one shy of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band's record 10 shows at the Meadowlands in New Jersey two years ago.
"The Centrum dates are without a doubt the high point of the tour --and I think I could say with relative accuracy the high point of the careers of all six musicians," states Boston's lead guitarist and producer, Tom Scholz.
Was Boston Garden ever considered?
"No," Scholz says during a recent phone interview. "Have you ever been to any of those 98-degree games they played there last year? Imagine what it could be like this time of year."
So the air-conditioned Centrum, which seats 12,700 people, will be the commuting site for the band members from their Greater Boston homes. "It's a pretty good ride from my house," he says, "but it would be nice to drive there. What a way to drive to work, huh?"
A cute irony is that Scholz --an eccentric who spent six years in his basement studio crafting Boston's last album, "Third Stage" --has never been to the Centrum before.
"I have never set foot inside that building," he says sheepishly. "And I don't want to see it until we're ready to play there."
Not once in those six years of recording did he sneak out to see a major concert at the Centrum?
"You know, I hadn't been to a concert since Boston's last 1978 show," he laughs. "I was trying to escape it, I think. But everybody says what a nice place it is."
The unassuming Scholz, an MIT graduate and former engineer at Polaroid in Cambridge, has been fully enjoying this summer's tour. He, singer Brad Delp and drummer Jim Masdea are the only holdovers from the original Boston in 1976, but they've struck a tight bond with new members Gary Pihl (a guitarist who used to work with Sammy Hagar), Dave Sikes (bassist) and Doug Huffman (a drummer who alternates on stage with Masdea).
"We've decided to extend the tour for eight weeks," Scholz says. "In fact, I was the first one to volunteer to keep it going until Christmas. We'll fill in places we missed --like Washington, Atlanta, Florida and some Midwest cities.
"We're having too much fun to stop," he adds. "We didn't think it would be this much fun. Getting ready for it certainly wasn't. I didn't expect it to be this good because it wasn't a lot of fun before. It was something I felt I had to do."
Scholz' eagerness has been helped by the new members --and by a crack road crew featuring several of Springsteen's chief technicians. They've been free to tour this summer since Springsteen is off the road writing songs.
"It's really hard to find anything to complain about, though I manage now and then," Scholz says with a self-mocking air.
"I didn't even mind when we had one show where the bass guitar went out for almost half the set. Can you imagine doing our set with no bass player?" he says, referring to the group's polished but hard-driving rock. "It all came down to one of those $10 flip switches that somebody jumped on by accident and broke. Both the main and backup systems of the bass went through it --and when it went out, we lost it for 30 minutes."
Scholz, still in droll humor, describes his effort to insure that rhythm guitarist, Gary Pihl, never has a similar fate.
"I've always told the crew that I want to be absolutely sure that Gary's guitar and backup system are always checked and always working. Because if a guitar goes out, I want to make sure it's mine, because I can just walk off the stage and he has to play. But if he's not there, I'm on my own."
Speaking of guitar, Scholz was embarrassed by his own playing at the start of the tour. "I considered myself to be bringing up the rear. I definitely wasn't 100 percent on my instrument in Texas," he says of those early days. ''But I feel much better about it now."
Back then, the 6-foot-5 Scholz was still recovering from a bad back suffered by playing basketball --his addiction outside of music. He had to step back and let Delp and Pihl (who joined the group in 1985) audition a new rhythm section and put it through rehearsals at the Waltham office of Scholz Research & Development (SR&D), a high-tech engineering space where Scholz works when he's not making music in his home studio.
The search for the new rhythm section focused on San Francisco, not Boston. That is where the band's manager, Jeff Dorenfeld, is from. He used to manage an early band containing Pihl, who as a teen-ager once had a guitar lesson from the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. A rival band was led by Huffman, who later moved to Arkansas with his wife and sold real estate in between gigs in a country-western club. That's where he was found. Pihl recommended him --and also put in a word for Sikes, a San Franciscan who played in the group Aldo Nova.
"I had never heard of Aldo Nova," says Scholz, "but of course, that doesn't mean anything because I've never heard of anybody."
The newcomers were put through rigorous tryouts. "They had to come in and sing and play on tape and sing harmonies against themselves and all this kind of stuff," Scholz says. "And they did live tryouts --alone and with another person. I've never gotten the whole story, but second hand I've deciphered that Gary and Brad really put them through their paces. The two of them deserve medals just for making it through the trials."
The band has jelled to the point where Scholz can't think of touring with anyone else. "I would say this unit would always be my choice for playing out live. I can't imagine playing in a better band. I just hope it's not another six years before we tour again."
So how about a live album from the tour? The concerts at the Centrum will be taped, he says, but likely for personal purposes, not for an album.
"I've been pretty consistent in not wanting to do a live album, because a live presentation is an audiovisual presentation in a controlled environment. But as soon as you take away the visual part and put it on a record and through someone's stereo system which you have no control over, then you destroy all the impact of it."
The Worcester shows will also be filmed, but again Scholz doubts that will result in a commercial venture. A mystery band to many people, Boston has never even made a video in all its years, let alone a home video cassette or television special.
So why film the shows?
"You want to have something for your grandchildren to watch when you're walking around with a cane," Scholz chortles. "But really, I don't know about a home video or whatever. I'm really ignorant when it comes to the business end of all that. I suppose something like that might be a possibility, but I don't know anything about it, frankly."
What Scholz does know is sound --how to get the cleanest sound possible and to harmonize guitars so they sound like mini-orchestras.
"We haven't changed our set much since the beginning of the tour," he says, "but we've added one little thing. It's essentially a string quartet played on electric guitars. You'll have to see that one to believe it. We do it after the song 'My Destination,' which is where you'd be turning your record over if you were listening to the whole album. So that's a new part we've added to create the right impact for (the next song) 'New World.' There's a key change required there, and playing one after the other without a reasonable pause just wasn't right. In fact, I wish I could go back and add it into all those CDs that were sold."
On stage, Boston starts with older songs like "Rock and Roll Band" and ''More Than a Feeling," then moves into the more modern songs from "Third Stage." But no matter what era the songs are from, the crowds have been more enthusiastic than Scholz can remember; hence, the attendance records that will be set at the Centrum the next two weeks.
"I'm not used to crowds being this excited and being this much fun to play for," he admits. "I don't have an explanation for it, but I can tell you that the last six years working on 'Third Stage' were the hardest six years of my life. So I'm certainly glad to have this year. What a joy."