America: Still Alive And Well
America. Photo by Kathy Reed.
STAFFORD CENTRE -- 2/21/09: Gifted song writers don't quit writing songs just because some people say that most of their hits are far behind them. Two of the founding members of classic rock group America, Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley, demonstrated that they are the epitome of that saying, bringing material both old and new to their sold-out performance last Saturday night at the Stafford Centre. Preceding America, Austin-based Second Day Red opened the show, featuring regional singer/songwriter Stephen Clarke and unveiling a creative set of alt-pop-rock pieces that have been gaining them greater local notice lately.
America's set was a very enjoyable mix of nostalgia and newness. Hits like "Ventura Highway," "You Can Do Magic," "Tin Man," and "Sister Golden Hair" were creatively injected amidst newer songs like "Chasing The Rainbow" and "Ride On." The group even included a cover of The Mamas & The Papas' "California Dreamin'." Always mellow to gently rhythmic, each of America's numbers flowed lushly through fairly simple pop chord patterns, augmented occasionally by a bridge or drops into minors for effect. The vocals and backing choruses remain comparable to past contemporaries Neil Young, Christopher Cross, James Taylor, or early Eagles or Doobie Brothers.
"I Need You," with its cleanly-raked acoustic guitar intro and beautiful vocals, was one of the many songs during the evening performed in nearly flawless four-part harmony -- a rare treat. One of the best songs of the night was "Sandman," which markedly departed into much harder musical territory with a fantastic electric guitar jam duet spearheaded by Bunnell and lead guitarist Michael Woods. For many in the audience, though, the closing encore of "Horse With No Name" was an emotional flashback to the glory days of the group's origins and a fitting end to a night filled with such moments.
In one of several comedic breaks between songs, Beckley assured the crowd that even old 8-tracks brought by fans would be autographed after the show. "You know who you are," he offered. Mixing due pride in marking the 40th anniversary of the Bunnell/Beckley duo in 2009 with the often strange circumstances experienced during their over-100-show-a-year touring schedule since then, he added, "What started out as a Simon & Garfunkel thing turned out to be more of a Sunshine Boys type of thing."
Truth be told, until recently, it had been nine years since their last album proper. Still, it seems that their new stuff, like this year's third-time-sellout tour stop at Stafford, is being very warmly received and appreciated by a growing crowd of listeners. Continuing to support the 2007 release of America's sixteenth studio album, Here & Now, and their subsequent induction into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, the lighter folk-rock songwriting team hopes to refuel a new resurgence of the popularity they enjoyed during their heyday in the early '70s.
Though the likelihood of that is rather slim, their chances are certainly bolstered by the fresh comeback production helmsmanship of Fountain Of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger and Smashing Pumpkin's James Iha, who have successfully aided in recapturing the clean trademark sound of America that made them famous in the first place. The two-disc album, divided equally between brand new songs and live versions of past hits, is metaphorically reminiscent of the dichotomy of opinions surrounding the band's lack of past critical acclaim. Though some former critics may not have fully appreciated the pioneering directions of such soft-rock acoustic artists back in the day, many now seem willing to revisit the contributions made by groups like America to the evolution of modern rock music.
Rather than merely diluting '60s folk into bland, commercialized arrangements, America consistently produces refined, hook-heavy melodies that smoothly take root in the memory of a wide variety of music listeners. Through it all, Bunnell and Beckley have remained artistically unabashed. Their Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1972 was only a precursor to the more than seventeen gold, platinum, and multi-platinum albums garnered since then. Their most recent offering is a January 2009 released special collection of acoustic set recordings, entitled Live In Concert: Wildwood Springs, presently available only online and at all of their live concerts.
Following a tradition established early on, most of their album names start with the letter "H." In retrospect, it seems that the "H" must stand for "Hang in there" -- it's definitely the one thing they've been able to do to absolute perfection. It all began years ago with a ride on a nameless horse, and it's anyone's guess how it will all end, because it appears that the journey is far from over yet. END