By Danny Coleman
"I really enjoyed my eight years in Sammy's band; what you see is what you get with Sammy. He's always in a good mood, very optimistic, a great singer, terrific musician; he'd always give us a pep talk and tell us how each year was going to be bigger than the last and he was right. We'd sell more records, play to bigger crowds; I really hated to see it break up."
Ah but good fortune has a way of finding good people and guitarist Gary Pihl is one of the good guys in rock music. Joining forces with Tom Scholz and Boston as they wrapped up their third album, "Third Stage" in 1986 and only a short time after Sammy Hagar put his solo career on hold to join Van Halen; Pihl enjoys recounting the events that have dictated his career and his current project Alliance.
"Well, in 1977 I joined Sammy Hagar's band and one of the first gigs we did was to open up for Boston at the end of their first tour. They liked us and we liked them and they asked us to open for their entire second tour so that's what we did all around the country in 1978 and 1979. Fast forward to 1985 and Sammy gets the call to join Van Halen and Tom Scholz from Boston calls me and says, "Hey Gary I heard you're out of a gig. I've got one more song to be recorded for our third album; will you come back here and work with me on it?" "So I said absolutely, you're one of my favorite bands and I'm out of work. So I flew directly from my last gig with Sammy which was "Farm Aid" out in Champagne, Illinois to Boston to start working with Tom. After a couple of weeks, Tom said, "Hey I think we work pretty well together; why don't you move back here? We'll finish the album and go on tour and see what happens," and I've been here ever since. After the third album came out and a very successful tour, Tom said, "It's going to be a few more years until we make the next record so if anybody has any side projects, now is your chance." So I called up my old band buddies Alan Fitzgerald, alias "Fitz" and David Lauser from Sammy's band and asked if they had time to put something together. Fitz was in between working with Night Ranger and David was doing session work. Now when Sammy broke up our band, Geffen Records introduced me to a guy named Robert Berry who was working with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer and he was available so we said lets give him a call. So the four of us got together at Sammy's recording studio, threw around some ideas and talked about what kind of band we would like to have and there it was; it began right on the spot."
Just like dropping a stylus on the turntable, musicians like to get in a groove themselves; is that possible when your band mates are busy managing multiple irons in their collective fires? With the May 2019 release of their latest effort, Pihl says there is both pro and con to hectic schedules.
"Unfortunately, because we all work with other bands, we don't get a chance to actually sit down and do Alliance music very often. One thing about the band is that we don't want to just send files back and forth, we all want to be in the same room at the same time. The title track for "Fire And Grace" was written on the spot; I had a guitar riff, Robert had a melody and some words and David had a cool groove; we just started playing and started recording. That was it, one take and we were done and that's how quickly that song came together. That is the magic of it, being in a band especially with guys that you've worked with before where everybody is comfortable in the room and when somebody makes a suggestion while we're working on a song and it doesn't matter who brought the song in originally; even when Dave the drummer says, "No, play the guitar like this," I listen to him because I know he's got some ideas to make the song better. I wish our fans could be there to watch it, the camaraderie, feeding off of each other on the spot while we're playing, that's the fun part about playing in a band and it's really special for me."
Session musicians at times may develop a rapport with various artists that request their work; Pihl says that he and the other members of Alliance have that closeness but also have another outlet to stay familiar with one another, one which helps those in need as well.
"Guys that you've worked with enough and are comfortable with, yeah you can go years without working with them and just jump right back in like riding a bike," he said with a slight laugh. "Dave, Robert and I are also in another band called The December Project where we do traditional holiday songs in the style of our favorite rock bands. Led Zeppelin, Santana, AC/DC and the list goes on and on but every show is a benefit for a local food bank. So because it's holiday songs it's in November and December; so we do get to perform together a bit more than every now and then. After this last holiday show we said hey we've got these other ideas for Alliance, let's finish up what we have and that's when we did this last Alliance CD."
"We always have a bunch of ideas that we never seem to get around to doing because we never have time. When we left the studio last December we said, OK let's work on this one, this one and this one; so we have an album worth of material and it's just a matter of finding the time to do it."
Many classic rock acts whose height of popularity saw them sell out arenas and stadiums now have a feast or famine approach; they either perform at huge festivals or small theaters. A band such as Alliance is no exception but Pihl says that they have a plan.
"What we'd love to do this summer is get on some festivals both here in the U.S and over in Europe. Usually at a festival there's multiple bands and there's bound to be one that you've never heard of before; we thought that would be a great venue for us because although people have seen us individually they've never seen us live as a unit. We've talked about a possible short tour on either the east or west coast which we'd love to do but so far it's just talk."
Meanwhile Pihl still has a foot firmly entrenched in Boston and he speaks freely of Tom Scholz's talents, touring and of the task of replacing original lead singer Brad Delp after his death in 2007.
"Tom designed the amplifiers that we are still using today, he's a very smart guy. When they put together those lists of the 100 greatest guitar players, he's always in there but he's also on the list of the 100 greatest keyboard players and there's only one guy who is on both of those lists. He's a really special guy and I've even worked with him at his electronics company where he built those amps. Typically Boston would only tour when we had a new album and those have been few and far between but these days with classic rock radio the fans want to hear the old songs and they want to hear them when we play live too but now it doesn't matter whether you have a new record out or not; we just did tours in 2014,2015, 2016 and 2017 which is more touring than the band did in the 70's (laughs). We've got a terrific lead singer named Tommy DeCarlo who sounds very much like Brad Delp did in the day. We found Tommy because he was always a fan of the band and he recorded some Boston songs and put them up on his Myspace page and somebody told us about him. So we checked him out and Tom said, "That's not Brad? That's this other guy?" So we tracked him down, he had never been in a band in his life; so we called him up and asked him to come jam with us and we're sure he thought that we were one of his buddies playing a prank on him but he came out and auditioned and he just nailed it and sounded terrific. He is also a great guy and it's so great having him in the band."
Alliance's release of "Fire And Grace" is the current focus especially with Boston currently not on the road or in studio but with no concrete tour plans; how does he feel?
"Most of the time I just thank my lucky stars that I'm still able to perform (laughs). Had someone told me when I was 16 that I'd still be playing guitar when I was 60 I would've said no way! I've gotten very lucky along the way. With Boston we'll still do some larger venues or a big festival with 50,000 people and at some arena shows we'll have other classic rock bands like Styx or REO Speedwagon with us. We all feel very fortunate that we can still do that; yeah we were doing stadiums and arenas before and now it is more theaters but we still love doing it."
To discover more about Gary Pihl, Boston or Alliance, please visit www.garypihl.com.