Held each year at the NAMM trade show in Anaheim, Calif., the TEC Awards honor technical excellence and creativity in the fields of recording and live music production. So it was fitting that at the 33rd annual TEC Awards, held at the Anaheim Hilton on Saturday, Jan. 27, both of the evening’s lifetime achievement awards were handed out in part to honor an album that was one of the most innovative experiments in recording attempted up to that time: Jackson Browne’s 1977 masterpiece Running on Empty.
Made entirely while on tour, Running on Empty was a concept album about the lives of touring musicians that mixed live performances with tracks recorded on tour buses and in hotel rooms. To make the album, Browne enlisted a group of ace session musicians, the Section, with whom he had frequently worked in the studio but never before brought on tour. The result became the bestselling album of Browne’s career and a new high-water mark for audio quality in live recordings.
The TEC Awards honored Browne with the Les Paul Innovation Award, and also inducted the Section into the TEC Awards Hall of Fame. At the conclusion of the awards, all four members of the Section — guitarist Danny Kortchmar, bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel and keyboardist Craig Doerge — joined Browne onstage for a rare reunion performance, delivering rousing versions of “Rock Me on the Water” and Running on Empty’s classic title track, which featured support from one of the song’s original backing vocalists, Rosemary Butler.
In accepting his award, a visibly moved Browne protested that “I’m the furthest thing from a technical person” and later told those in attendance, “I’m indebted to you all who make the gear that I don’t even know how to turn on, but that I could not do anything that I do without.” He dedicated his award to Running on Empty’s lead recording engineer, Greg Ladanyi, who passed away in 2009.
“I had this idea that if I could just record every show — record everything, even what happened backstage, even the conversations that happened on the bus, that I could make something really memorable about what it was like to be a touring musician,” Browne said of making Running on Empty.
Earlier in the day at NAMM, all four members of the Section participated in a panel discussion, led by author and photographer David “Mr. Bonzai” Goggin, about the making of Running on Empty. The 45-minute conversation was filled with humorous stories and revealing insights about what it was like to record on the road in the days before digital technology.
The Section were famous in the ‘70s for their work with a host of singer-songwriters, including Browne, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon and Crosby & Nash, as well as their own instrumental rock albums. A Rolling Stone article dubbed them the “Knights of Soft Rock” — though when Goggin used this moniker in his introduction, Sklar waved it off with a lewd gesture that got a big laugh from those in attendance.
Even for a group of such close-knit, seasoned musicians, working with Browne and his longtime fiddle and lap steel player, David Lindley, Running on Empty was a challenge to make. “We were flying by the seat of our pants on this thing,” Sklar said. “Nobody quite knew what we were getting into.”
For some songs, Sklar recalled “going into hotel rooms and taking the bed apart and standing the box spring and mattress up against the wall. I remember I had a little Univox bass amp and put it under the desk. Jackson would sing in the bathroom. So we really utilized the room and just made it into a little studio. It was like guerrilla recording.”
One song, “Nothing But Time,” was recorded on the band’s tour bus, with “a small cardboard box that I taped to the floor” serving as a kick drum, Kunkel recalled. Famously, you can hear the bus’s engine in the background on the track, but as Kortchmar explained, this was more than just a happy accident: “To show you how nuts Jackson is, he actually took the bus back out after we finished cutting the track. He said, ‘We need more bus sounds!’ So he sent the bus back out, with Ladanyi, and recorded two hours of just bus.”
Five of Running on Empty’s 10 tracks were brand-new songs or covers recorded in concert, and often, the versions heard on the album had been worked up in rehearsals or sound checks just hours before the band took the stage. Kunkel recalled that the title track, in particular, didn’t come together until the night before it was recorded. “When we recorded it that day, it was fresh. We were listening [to each other] to play it right. It has a real innocence about it.”
This also meant that, to the trained ear, Running on Empty was filled with mistakes. Speaking to Billboard before the panel, Doerge noted that when he was re-listening to the record before rehearsals for their TEC Awards performance, “I heard a couple of things on ‘You Love the Thunder,’ our live version, that would automatically be fixed today because everybody’s so used to perfecting everything. We realized a lot of the magic is in the ability to just let it be live.”
At the panel, Kortchmar gave an impassioned plea for the value of live, raw performances that haven’t been scrubbed clean by Pro Tools and other audio production technology. “You never hear mistakes anymore,” he said, “and that’s what’s missing in music. And we all know it. Let’s face it. There’s nothing like the sound of a band in a room where they play together.”
That, the Section members all agreed, was what made Running on Empty so special. “It’s one of the absolute purist live albums you’ve ever gonna hear,” said Sklar. “So many bands release live albums and the only thing live is the audience response. They’ve gone back to the studio and replaced everything and fine-tweaked it all. That was all forfeited for vibe and feel and energy. It’s really an honest record.”
Later that evening at the TEC Awards, after a heartfelt induction speech by guitarist Steve Lukather, the four members of the Section took the stage to accept their TEC Awards Hall of Fame honors. “It’s been such a fabulous run with these maniacs,” said Sklar. “We’ve had such a great life together and the thing that’s so special is it’s not over — everyone’s still working their butts off.”
An hour later, as if to prove the point, the Section joined their old bandleader Browne onstage to wrap up the night with an electrifying performance, their first since appearing together to honor James Taylor at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016.
“It just is,” Doerge said of the chemistry the Section musicians still feel together after all these years. “That happened from the very jump.”