By Marijke Rowland
The Modesto Bee
Even after almost 40 years, the way to get ready for a big national tour is still the same for the members of Boston.
"Like the old cliché goes: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You practice," longtime Boston guitarist and backing vocalist Gary Pihl said in a recent phone interview. "We've got six people on the road this year. And we practice to get ready."
Pihl will be on the road with Boston founding members Tom Scholz and the rest of the group as they play more than 50 shows in North America this summer. The band stops at the Ironstone Amphitheatre on July 25 for a double-bill with fellow classic rockers REO Speedwagon.
Founded in 1976, Boston broke out big with hits like "More Than a Feeling," "Peace of Mind" and "Don't Look Back." The band charted through the 1970s and '80s and has kept an active arena touring schedule over the decades. Their sound has become as legendary as their spaceship logo which is emblazoned on albums and other imagery.
Still, what makes the group's music so enduring is harder to pinpoint. The band's self-titled debut went platinum 17 times and overall the group has sold more than 31 million albums.
"It's in the ear of the beholder, but the music -- there's just something about it that resonates with people. There's no telling why. Why do we like that sound more than something else?" Pihl said. "Maybe it's the lyrics or the music. But it just sounds so good. I know when I need to take a long road trip I take Boston albums along. It just puts me a good mood. It's not something you can plan, it's just something you hope for."
Since joining the group in 1985, Pihl has become the longest-serving current member of the group outside of founder Scholz. The band also includes bassist Tracy Ferrie, drummer Jeff Neal, vocalist Tommy DeCarlo and keyboardist/guitarist Beth Cohen. Born in Chicago, Pihl moved to San Mateo in his early teens and spent his formative years in music in the Bay Area.
He was living in the area when he first heard Boston on the radio, a moment he clearly remembers.
"I was driving down the street in Petaluma, the town I was living in at the time. I was stopped and the guy in the car in front of me, who I knew, jumps out and runs to me. He said you've got to turn on the radio. I did and it was Boston and ‘More than a Feeling' came on."
Before boarding Boston, Pihl helped to found Night Ranger and played with Sammy Hagar. But then the opportunity to first tour with and then become a member of Boston came along. At the time he had no idea it would turn into a 30-year commitment.
"You never know. Andy Warhol said you're only entitled to 15 minutes of fame. So you never know how things are going to last, especially in rock 'n' roll. I was, again, fortunate to be in Sammy Hagar's band for eight years. Every year with him things got better and better. Then he left the band to join Van Halen, so that's how we hooked up with (Scholz). How lucky can one guy be?"
Pihl has been on every album starting with "Third Stage" in 1986. The group's latest, 2013's "Life, Love & Hope," is only the group's sixth studio release overall. The release was the band's first new music in 11 years. Pihl said the long incubation periods are deliberate.
"(Scholz) usually takes a long time to record an album. Even the first album took a long time to make. He's very particular about it," Pihl said. "He'll work on a song for months and throw it away. He's not to be rushed. But that's the way it is."
But, judging from audience response on the road, the wait is worth it to the Boston faithful.
"We have played a couple of the songs and people seem to like it. Tom at one point in a set, he asked the questions, ‘Do you think a band like us -- meaning mature bands -- should still put out new records?' And the audience went nuts," Pihl said.
In between projects with Boston, Pihl has a trio of other groups he plays with regularly: Alliance, Color Three and December People. The latter is his latest passion project and, as the name implies, it's only done around the holidays each year.
"It's a bunch of guys from other groups and we play traditional holiday music but in the style of other rock bands," he said. "We play a song that sounds like The Who, but then it's ‘Joy to the World.' Or a song like ZZ Top, but with ‘Ho-ho-hos' instead of their ‘Ha-ha-has.' People can sing along because they know all the songs. It's just a fun thing to do."
It's also a charitable thing to do because every show is a benefit for a local food bank.
Still, Pihl said nothing compares to stepping out on the stage with Boston and seeing the eager crowd. Fans can expect the favorites, but the band also encourages suggestions for deep cuts each show. People can throw out requests on the group's Facebook page.
"We're thrilled to be out there and still doing it. The audience is why you do it. People say you get tired of playing the same songs over and over," he said. "If I was in my living room doing it, I'd probably get tired. But we're on stage doing it. And there's no better feeling than standing up there and watching people smiling and singing along."