You can blame America. That would be the band, not the country.
In fact, the first time I ever saw the word America was on an album cover. This would have been circa 1975-1976, possibly earlier. It was spelled in capital letters. Below it were America’s three members — Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek. The sons of U.S. Air Force personnel who became friends while attending high school in London were dressed casually and sitting even more casually on some pillows appearing to engage in light conversation. In back of them is a large photo of three American Indians looking both sad and stern. I have always been struck by the juxtaposition of the two images.
You can blame America for my love of rock ’n’ roll from the early 1970s. America’s eponymous debut album was the very first record to which I ever listened. It was at then that I became aware of the existence of music. Every time I hear the acoustic guitar strums from “Riverside,” the lead track, it always symbolizes beginnings for me. I find it fitting that in the two previous concerts I’ve attended they began their set with “Riverside.”
I had the opportunity to explain this to them after seeing them perform live for the first time in Lowell, Massachusetts in August 2005. Their reactions were like night and day. Bunnell said somewhat in jest, “Did your parents make you listen to our records?” Beckley, on the other hand, saw that I was being completely serious and sincere and he looked at me in such a way that left the impression that he understood exactly where I was coming from.
Nearly three years later, I would see them perform again this time at the Hatch Shell (best known for the Fourth of July concerts with the Boston Pops) on the Esplanade along the Charles River. What I remember about this concert was when Beckley said, “These aren’t oldies. This is classic rock! There’s a difference.” The only problem was that the concert was being sponsored by Oldies 103.3. Needless to say, they were never invited back again.
There have been a couple of significant events that have occurred with America since I last saw them in concert in 2008. First and foremost, Dan Peek would pass away in July 2011. Peek left America in 1977 after becoming a born-again Christian and embarking upon a new career as a contemporary Christian musician. Although there many efforts by record companies to get the trio to reunite it would never come to pass.
Second, the past couple of years has seen the retirement of both guitar, keyboard player, and backup vocalist Michael Woods as well as drummer and percussionist Willie Leacox. Woods had been touring with America since 1977 while Leacox had on the road with them since they began touring in 1972. They have been replaced by Bill Worrell and ex-Reel Big Fish drummer Ryland Steen, respectively. It made me wonder if their sound would be more contemporary when I would see then perform at Boston’s Wilbur Theater late last week.
When the show began with a video presentation of America through the years accompanied by the instrumental “Miniature,” which leads off their fourth album Holiday (the first of seven America albums to be produced by former Beatles producer Sir George Martin). As I watched and listened, it occurred to me that this would be the first time seeing them perform in an indoor venue. Fittingly, “Miniature” segued into “Tin Man” as it does on the Holiday album. A good choice as it’s my favorite America song that is not on the debut album. Well, I guess if you’ve been performing 100 shows a year for the past 45 years you’ve got to change the order of your set list once in a while.
“Riverside” would be the fifth song of the night beginning a trilogy of songs from the debut album along with “I Need You” and “Here.” It was interesting to see that Beckley was not at the keyboards on “I Need You,” as he customarily is. Beckley played guitar while the keyboards were divided between bass player Richard Campbell and Worrell. In fact, Worrell played both guitar and keyboards at the same time. He also played a nifty guitar solo on “Here” as well as “Only in Your Heart,” the Mamas & Papas’ classic “California Dreamin” and the obscure “Green Monkey,” which America dedicated “to our 9 fans out in the audience.” Beckley complimented Worrell for playing the “Green Monkey” guitar solo as well as Joe Walsh did when they recorded it back in 1973. Beckley playfully teased Worrell for his youth, quipping, “We had comebacks before he was born.” But make no mistake about it. Worrell’s presence and that of Steen on drums will keep Beckley and Bunnell on their toes for many years to come.
Next week, America releases Lost & Found, their 18th studio album. It consists of previously unreleased material. “Drivin’ to the Future” should have been brought out on the road long ago. Although this song was nicely received, the fans want to hear the hits. As he did back in ’08, Beckley said, “These aren’t oldies. This is classic rock. There’s a difference.” But then he added, “We’re not sure what the difference is, but there’s a difference.” Beckley further offered that when they last performed at the Sydney Opera House, a member of the audience replied, “The difference is you’re still alive.” Bunnell, 63, and Beckley, 62, are very much alive and well.
Of course the world has very much changed in the past 45 years but America is approaching the change with good humor. Beckley joked about accessing their “Facepage” and “Spacebook” pages. He also gave the audience some sage online advice. “Don’t Google America,” said Beckley, “You won’t find us.” Where you can find America? Why on Ventura Highway, of course. And at venturahighway.com. Just look out for the purple rain.
Bunnell spoke of fond memories of Boston. He told the audience that America’s second ever concert on American soil was in Boston at a club off the Mass Turnpike called Lenny’s (which has long since burned down). It was 1972 and “A Horse With No Name” had gone Number One. Bunnell recalled telling the manager they didn’t have enough material to do a whole show. The manager reassured him, “Don’t worry. We have a kid who will do half an hour of comedy before you hit the stage.” That kid was Jay Leno.
Bunnell also mentioned performing with the Everly Brothers in Boston in the early ’70s. No doubt their vocal harmonies influenced America as they did many other groups. I wish I had been there to witness that performance. It would have been quite a sound to hear.
Some other notable songs in the show included two cuts from their 2011 My Back Pages album. Bunnell described it as a collection of “songs we wish we had written.” The duo performed “’Til I Hear It From You” by the Gin Blossoms and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” a nice touch considering her recent health scare. Although best known for their acoustic music, the band rocked out on “Woman Tonight” and “Sandman” — one of five songs they would play from their debut album.
Of course, there was one song from the debut album they had to play. No America concert is complete without “A Horse With No Name.” It is amazing how this song has endured over the past 40 plus years. No doubt Breaking Badhelped it win a new generation of fans. One of the most interesting aspects of this song was when it first hit the airwaves many people thought it was a Neil Young song including his own father and many people still think it’s one of his songs to this very day.
Given that “A Horse With No Name” was among the first songs I ever heard I experienced no such confusion. I will always associate the song with America, band that I love.
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