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How Jackson Browne’s Classic Live Album Became a ‘Runaway Train’

todayMay 29, 2024 5

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Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty album was one where the music fans got to be part of the process. Because it was recorded live on stage in concert — and at other points along the touring trail, backstage, in hotel rooms and even on the tour bus – it was a unique and often chaotic experience for those involved in the recording.As bassist Leland Sklar told UCR, Running on Empty was unlike anything he had ever been a part of. While bands and artists are very used to the uncomfortable nature of playing new material in front of an audience that’s just there to hear the hits, Running on Empty captured moments with Browne and the band where they were playing new songs that the audiences hadn’t even had a chance to get on an album yet, because they hadn’t been recorded.For Sklar, it was just one experience of many songs and albums that he’s played on across the decades. While he’s worked with countless names, there were a few that kept coming up — guitarist Waddy Wachtel, guitarist Danny Kortchmar and drummer Russ Kunkel. The four became known as The Section, the ’70s heir apparent to The Wrecking Crew of the ’60s. Collectively and often together, they’ve played on thousands of albums.In more recent years, they’ve acquired a new moniker, one which fits well with their connection to the legendary albums they played on by Warren Zevon, Linda Ronstadt, Carole King, Don Henley and many others — The Immediate Family. Adding vocalist Steve Postell to their ranks, they’ve put out several albums.But it was director Denny Tedesco who decided to tell the story of the guys, through the words of their famous employers and associates. He’s well-suited for the task, having put out a film about The Wrecking Crew, the group of session musicians that featured his father, guitarist Tommy Tedesco. He saw the natural throughline that connected that collective with what Kortchmar, Wachtel, Sklar and Kunkel continued with the Section.The Immediate Family is a fascinating journey, one which weaves together valuable history as recounted by those who were there. The film was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray and continues to screen nationally. Sklar and Tedesco spoke with Ultimate Classic Rock Radio host Matt Wardlaw to discuss Running on Empty and other selected highlights.Leland Sklar: It was kind of like guerrilla warfare, doing Running on Empty. Because it was unlike any other project we’d ever been involved with. I’d done live albums and stuff before. But there was something about that [which was different]. First off, it was all new material, so you had audiences that were hearing things for the first time. It wasn’t like you were playing your greatest hits for them. You’re taking them on this new journey. The Section got to open every one of those shows, so we were having a ball. We got to play our asses off for the whole tour. One of the things for me that was a real poignant memory, I don’t drink at all, for the most part. I’ve been drunk like three times in my life and it was just because I was going, “Fuck this, I’m going to take a bottle of rum and chug it!” Well, one night [on that tour], I really just did not have a great night and I got hammered. All of the sudden, Jackson calls us and says, “Let’s record!” We were in a Holiday Inn or something. We get in there and we’re recording and I thought I was playing my ass off. Man, I was rockin’.The next day, I heard the tape and it sounded like a chimpanzee had found a bass in a room and was beating it up. I thought, “I’m never going to drink again. This is the most embarrassing, horrible thing I’ve ever done.” [Laughs] It was a funny moment. But it was such an incredible thing. We would just work up these songs and the next thing you know, they’re in the show. We played the Robin Hood Dell, in Philadelphia, which was this beautiful outdoor amphitheater. A massive storm came through and all of the stairs coming down through the place looked like a salmon run. Water was pouring in this place and everybody in the audience was soaking wet, going crazy and having fun. So you know, it’s like, there’s just these memories that hit you where you go, “This was a cool project.” Not necessarily remembering the specific songs or anything. As we talk about in the movie, sometimes it was a restaurant in a town that you walk away from going, “I’ve got to come back and go to that place again. You have memories about Mud Island in Memphis and the Peabody Hotel and they filmed the ducks coming out of the elevator, because the Peabody ducks are really famous. All of this shit.Listen to Jackson Browne’s ‘Running on Empty’Denny Tedesco: Here’s something else about Running on Empty. The first time I saw the movie was during COVID. We had to first show it to the guys in the band. That’s the most nerve-wracking, because you don’t know [how they’re going to react to it]. They were there and Jackson was there. It was like 10 people in a little small room, spread out. Jackson goes, “Man, I’ve learned stuff about these guys that I’ve known for 50 years that I didn’t know about them.” That was extraordinary. Waddy was teary-eyed when the picture of him with his mom and brother came up, because he didn’t know I had that. His brother gave it to me. He said, “We always get asked to tell our memories of other people for documentaries.”You know, it’s never about themselves, so it’s really emotional for these guys. But Jackson one day called me out of the blue. He said, “Hey, Denny, it’s Jackson Browne.” He goes, “I love the film, but I’ve got one issue.” I said, “What?” “You know when I talk about Running on Empty, I’m talking about it being a runaway train.” He goes, “That’s a negative thing. I meant that as a negative thing.” So I asked him why. He goes, “Well, what it was, we’d rehearse during the day and go in and it was just never the same sometimes. It wasn’t until the last city that we nailed it.” But how I looked at it in the cut, the [line] was so forceful and it sounded cool, so we used it, even though it was out of context. I tried to recut it and it didn’t work, so I said, “Is he okay with that?” And he said, yeah.Lee, there’s a great outtake in the film where Phil Collins is talking about the long history with his solo band. You come in and sit down by Phil as he’s talking and it’s a really poignant moment, as the two of you then start to talk about that history. The first time you worked with Phil was on a Lee Ritenour project. What do you remember about coming across Phil’s playing prior to that?Sklar: You know, I always loved prog rock. I was a Genesis fan and I loved [Peter] Gabriel. He’s still to me, one of the most unbelievable artists to come out of this generation. When I got the call from Lee Ritenour to work on a track on his album, I showed up and there’s Phil. I knew Phil from Genesis and Brand X. He knew me through James Taylor and he was also a huge fan of Mike Post’s work on TV shows. So he said, “Oh man, you played on The Rockford Files and all of these shows. That’s incredible!” We bonded immediately and he asked me to do his first solo album, Face Value. I was committed to James Taylor at that point. I said, “I wish I could do it, but I can’t.”I told him, “Call me again if you can, because I’d love to work with you.” He called me in ‘84 and asked me to come to London and do No Jacket Required. The following year, we toured that whole year and watched his career go from playing large clubs to arenas instantly when “Sussudio” came out and all of that stuff. For me, that’s one of the most emotional parts of the movie. When we filmed [the conversation with Phil], we were a day away from the last gig we were ever going to play. So it was a pretty tough thing to sit there and go through it. You know, you were talking about how some interviews are hard, Phil was a hard interview at the beginning for Denny and the guys. Because he was quiet and stuff. That’s when I came in the room and sat down with him and he opened up a whole lot more at that point and we got some really good moments. But when I see us hugging, it just breaks my heart. I love the guy so much and to know what he’s been going through physically and stuff is really hard.Phil Collins and Leland Sklar Discuss Their Last TourIt’s really heartbreaking. What you were just talking about made me think of something else I loved about the movie and that is seeing Phil talk about how he used to see “these guys’ names in the liner notes.” It’s cool to see moments like that where someone like Phil is just there as a fellow music fan.Sklar: I think one of the funniest little moments in the thing — and I’m not sure how it was found — I think it might have been Peter Asher, talking about the importance of records. You see this old footage of somebody in a record store and the album they’re holding is James Taylor!Tedesco: Let me tell you, all of that was an accident. I just said to somebody, “I need footage of someone in a record shop in the 1970s grabbing records.” Lee, I didn’t recognize the album until after we cut it into the film. I glossed over the moment, we cut it into the film and it works perfectly and then all of the sudden, I’m going, “Holy shit, that person has a James Taylor album in their hand.” I got goosebumps.Sklar: You can’t plan something like that.Tedesco: Yeah, you can’t ask for that, “I need a person grabbing a James Taylor album.” Good luck.Sklar: No, that blew my mind the first time I saw that. I just went, “Holy crap.” Because it’s not new footage that somebody did to set up a scene!Denny, what did you learn making The Wrecking Crew that was helpful when you started thinking about the idea of this film?Tedesco: Well, I think the first thing is, don’t put your own money into it. [Laughs] But the funny thing is, yes, it took 19 years from beginning to end [with The Wrecking Crew film], so there was a lot of growth for me as a director and a producer. Seeing what worked with audiences around the world, I realized, you know what? It’s not about the music all of the time. It’s about the other stories — the personal stories, that really resonate with audiences. You could have a great doc about a concert or music or whatever, but there’s more to it. Because I can’t relate to them as musicians. I relate to them as a son or a friend. You relate as a father or whatever it is. You’ve got to make sure that you bring that into the story. These guys are just givers. All of the interviews, everybody couldn’t wait to talk about these guys and that says so much about these guys.Sklar: I worked with so many of the people that were the Wrecking Crew. I worked with Denny’s dad many, many times. I worked with Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Mike Melvoin, Al Casey, all of these guys. When Denny did the movie, I was completely blown away by what he accomplished with that. I really loved going to screenings. Sometimes I’d get involved in the Q&A because I was this transitory player that got in at the tail end of them and at the beginning of what we became. When the opportunity to do this project came along, first off, I was beyond flattered that we would even be considered subject matter for a doc. Because you don’t think of that. You’re living in your own skin and you’re just happy to go to work and have a gig. But I knew that since it was Denny making it, we were in great hands.The Wrecking Crew was such a really monumental piece of work. Now, watching the movie many times over now, there are stories being told by guys — I’ve been with these guys over 50 years and I was learning new things about them. Our relationship has really been a musical relationship and not hearing how they grew up and what turned them on to what they do. So it’s been really fun. The frosting on the cake is being there with audiences that respond. They all respond in such a positive way. Like even Peter Asher talks about in the movie, he says, “These guys weren’t famous musicians, these were friends of ours.” And we were all at the very beginning of our careers. We were like a cat spraying and marking its territory as best as it can. As time has gone on, to have people that stop you and say, “You’re the soundtrack of my life,” it’s really a touching moment.I always look at them and say, “I’m the soundtrack of my life too.” I can disassociate myself from actually having participated on so many of these albums and still appreciate them as a fan. I think about the other musicians on it who have come and gone. Producers and artists who are no longer with us. Every time I hear something, I can close my eyes and I have really strong recollections. So I can go back in my mind and remember the studio and things that went on during the course of making those records. Some of it’s good and a little bit of it is not so great. But I find it’s just an interesting journey. The way that Denny has documented it is so flattering and so touching. It’s something that will live forever, long after we’re gone, which could be any day now.The Most Awesome Live Album From Every Rock LegendSome of these concert recordings sold millions of copies, while others received little fanfare. Still, they remain the best of the best.Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin

Written by: Badlands Classic Rock

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