America Stafford Centre August 10, 2013
Something about the '70s folk-rock band America reminds me of the happier parts of my childhood. I remember sitting on the green shag carpet in our house, listening quietly to my dad pluck away at the notes to "A Horse With No Name," and feeling a comfort that was hard to come by during that time.
Gone was the tumultuous storm that had become life; there was a total calm while he pulled the string to create each note. We were just there, in the moment, the two of us, and there was a silent understanding of each other. America's music was my security blanket, and in those moments, I wished the music would never stop.
It's still kind of that way with old folk-rock. I've grown to be a classic-rock junkie, thanks in part to those memories of the green shag under my feet and the quiet notes of an acoustic guitar ringing out through the air, and folk music is the ultimate for me. It's an instant opiate; if some old harmonious folk song comes on, I'm immediately soothed, despite being well past my adolescence.
So America is one of those bands that holds some pretty special memories for me, and that fact alone made me a bit wary of reviewing them. I didn't want that idea of them crushed by some shoddy throwback concert or some aging pipes, and I wasn't sure what the case would be.
Really, I had nothing to worry about. America's concert at the Stafford Centre Saturday night didn't let that folk-loving sweet-tooth down.
From the moment that quintet hit the stage with their 1974 hit "Tin Man," amid a glowing slideshow that documented the group's progression during the '70s and '80s, it was apparent that nothing but the songs is at throwback status . Even after 43 years together, playing 100-plus shows a year, these guys are still touting the original lineup -- minus late co-founder Dan Peek, who left the group in 1977 and died in 2011 -- the original harmonies, and dual front men Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell's unique vocals. I was honestly kind of shocked. I hadn't expected to hear such a strong performance right out of the box, but these guys were killing it.
Four decades be damned, Beckley and Bunnell can still harmonize with the best of 'em. With the crowd waving their glow sticks in lieu of lighters -- the Stafford Centre is way too much of a theater setting for lighters, and this mature crowd was content sans flames -- the band literally ran through a set list of hits that spanned the entire length of their catalog. Nothing was off limits, so it was total memory lane status.
The great thing about America is that it's easy to forget just how many hits these guys really have had over the years; their career is so enduring that when listening to them live, it's a lot like rediscovering some old treasured bit of nostalgia that's been buried underneath a mountain of dusty bins.
Each song is familiar and comfortable, but it piques the senses as the words start to flow back once the floodgates of memories are open. Every song seemed to elicit the response of, "Oh shit! I forgot they sang this," from not only myself, but the entire length of my row. It was kind of cool to see how eyes would light up as the hits kept coming.
As a band, America really is the definition of folk-rock; every song has a harmony, and although there are some awesome -- and quite dirty -- guitar riffs every once in a while, the main focus is on the vocals. Their music is a total group effort; they are nothing without the sum of their parts, and that's a pretty unique quality to have, especially when you measure their music against the current offerings. Yes, both Beckley and Bunnell have very interesting vocal tones, but they're honestly enhanced and enriched by the backing harmonies, while the backing vocals can become as important as the lead.
That harmonious component remained essential throughout the concert, no matter how recent the songs were. "Indian Summer," a 2006 track produced by James Iha (yes, that James Iha), was an updated version of the sound that America gained notoriety for in the '70s, but it didn't lose any of the bittersweet vitality of back in the day. Those die-hard fans that filled the sold-out Stafford Centre bobbed their heads along quietly to the newer tracks, and even if they didn't mouth the words along with the band, it was a seamless transition between the newer and more retro material.
The crowd seemed to be as pleased with the set list as I was, but I was surprised to see an audience at a concert that didn't show their enthusiasm with much more than polite applause. "Sister Golden Hair Surprise" and an encore of "A Horse With No Name" were the only times the crowd stood up out of their seats to jam along, but it was actually refreshing to see a crowd that was comfortable tapping their feet and bobbing along to the music, just taking it all in without the need to overwhelm the experience with audience-driven antics.
Standouts were the energetic harmonicas on "Lonely People" and a rock-tinged version of "The Border," but in addition to their own catalog, we were given some pretty rad covers. America wowed the audience with not only a Joni Mitchell song but also a cover of the Gin Blossoms' "Til I Hear It From You."
I actually way dug their version of the Gin Blossoms track, which was a total shock, considering in retrospect it's hard to reconcile the amalgamation of those two bands' sounds, but whatever they did, it worked. Those sweet old harmonies and the bit of folk edge that they added gave the song a cleaner, more melodic feel.
Really, no matter what they played, cover or otherwise, America was quite like I would have imagined they sounded back in the '70s at some outdoor festival surrounded by free-lovin' hippies in terrible pants. If you closed your eyes and ignored the cleanliness of the Stafford Centre, these guys were all dirty '70s folk-rock, from start to finish.
The night was full of nostalgia, both for the audience and the band, with America proudly displaying those decades of music across the screen behind them as a badge of honor for all the years their music has endured. Meanwhile, the audience displayed those decades of memories across their faces as they -- and I -- quietly sang along.
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Personal Bias: I fessed up first paragraph. These are songs that helped illustrate my childhood, and I have a soft spot for 'em.
The Crowd: Well, definitely more of the "original" America fans. Not many folks there were from my generation, but I guess they don't know what they're missin'.
Overheard in the Crowd: I'm not sure of the context, but I heard someone use the phrase "far out" and I literally swooned. I'm going to resurrect that saying somehow.
Random Notebook Dump: Don't throw bottles or tomatoes at me, but at some points during the set, they kind of reminded me of Chicago. KIND OF.