For the first time in his nearly 50-year career, Justin Hayward is touring without a drummer.
This week, the singer and guitarist for British symphonic rock group The Moody Blues will begin his first U.S. tour behind his first solo album in 17 years, “Spirits of the Western Sky,” released in February. Three of the album’s 15 tracks find Hayward experimenting with traditional bluegrass and country sounds, utilizing acoustic guitars, upright bass and dobro, but no drums.
The other songs on the album retain much of the lush production work and orchestrated passages that are hallmarks of The Moody Blues’ sound. Still, it hasn’t been much of a stretch adapting the new material to the stripped-down setting of this tour, which heads to The Egg on Tuesday night.
“I’m looking back to my original demos of [the songs], looking back to the way I did those, which was just acoustic guitar with a little bit of keyboards and without any drums,” Hayward said recently, while preparing for the tour in Italy. “It’s really just going a few steps back to my music room, because that’s how it was in my music room. It’s no effort, really. People will have to use their imaginations, but at least they’ll see how the songs started; that’s the important thing.”
Hayward, who joined a revamped Moody Blues in late 1966 and has been the band’s primary vocalist and songwriter since, has always played both acoustic and electric guitars on both Moody Blues albums and his solo work. The bluegrass leanings of the new album and this tour have led Hayward to want to focus more on acoustic guitar when The Moody Blues starts touring again in September.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $55, $45, $35
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“I’ve tried to get back into doing acoustic guitar things with The Moodys, but it wasn’t until really the late ’80s that guitar technology got better so that you could use an acoustic guitar onstage,” Hayward said. “Before that, playing acoustic guitar on songs like ‘Nights in White Satin,’ I was always having to translate it to electric guitar to do it onstage. This tour has turned me on even more to getting back to using acoustic guitars; the only problem is that I’m the only guitar player in The Moodys — I did all the acoustic and electric guitars on the records. So we’ll see how that works out.”
These aren’t just any acoustic guitars Hayward is bringing on tour with him — they’re his songwriting guitars. He has never toured with them before and is still a bit worried about exposing them to the rigors of the road.
“There’s a lot of different tunings, and I used a capo on a few tunes; some are 12-string, some six,” Hayward said. “So instead of stopping to tune all the time, I thought I would just bring a selection of my own guitars from home. I just hope they make it; they’re not quite as tough. It’s gonna be a shock for them when I open the case and they’re in Pittsburgh and not my front room.”
On this tour, Hayward will have some help in the six-string department from guitarist Mike Dawes, with Moody Blues touring keyboardists Alan Hewitt and Julie Ragins rounding out the group. In addition to the new songs, the quartet will perform material from throughout Hayward’s long career, both the expected hits like “Nights in White Satin” and rarities that have rarely, if ever, been performed by The Moody Blues.
Expectations and patience
“ ‘New Horizons,’ I’m looking forward to doing that. I don’t think we’ve ever done that onstage,” Hayward said. “There are a few things we haven’t done with The Moody Blues onstage that I thought would be quite nice. Also, I had a hit with the song ‘Forever Autumn’ from ‘[Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of] The War of The Worlds’ , and I’m looking forward to doing that; I don’t often get a chance to do it, and it’s a song people know. Of course I’ll be doing Moody Blues things, things people expect, but really the best parts of the show are from the new album, so people are going to have to be patient with me.”
“Spirits of the Western Sky” is not only Hayward’s first solo album since 1996’s “The View From the Hill” but also the first album of all-original material he’s released since The Moody Blues’ last album, “Strange Times” (a 2003 Christmas album, “December,” featured a mix of originals and covers). The album grew out of demos recorded during the long interim period away from recording.
“It was only about two years ago that . . . my engineer and I decided we should do it seriously, record everything properly and make a proper album out of it,” Hayward said. “I was very lucky that Eagle Rock [Entertainment] came in quite early and said they were interested in releasing anything I did. It was a real pleasure, a labor of love. There was no input from anyone else, no A&R guy, so I have to take responsibility.”
His decision to dabble in bluegrass and country came partially from a tribute album, “Moody Bluegrass,” released in 2004, and partially from an invitation in the ’90s to be part of a songwriters showcase in Nashville.
“It was myself, Steve Winwood, Michael McDonald, Jimmy Webb, and it was absolutely great,” Hayward said. “I felt that community was very welcoming, and I met a lot of musicians through that, Nashville musicians, particularly a group of bluegrass people, not writers but great players.
“For me, it was like going back to my childhood,” Hayward continued. “I fell into it; I absolutely loved it. It was a new experience for me, working with double bass, no drums, no electric guitar, and just doing a song in one take, all together. I had forgotten what that was like — it’s very exciting.”
Although Hayward has been feeling some pressure to record more bluegrass material, a new Moody Blues album probably won’t be surfacing anytime soon. The band, which since 2002 has only featured three official members — Hayward, bassist John Lodge and founding drummer Graeme Edge — has kept touring regularly, making numerous appearances in the Capital Region in recent years.
“I know there’s a lot of DVD interest from us, so if we do something it may be in that live context, but we have no plans at the moment,” Hayward said. “At the moment, we have so many offers for touring, and we’re enjoying The Moody Blues catalog. We’re enjoying rediscovering what we did when we were younger.”
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or email@example.com.