Monday, March 09, 2020

"How Did You Find America?" Largely Terrific but with Some Issues & Imperfections -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act The Buckinghams
Genesee Theater, Waukegan, IL
March 6, 2020

Just the other day, a friend sent a nice note thanking me for all the music I had turned her onto over the years.

And while I likely wouldn't know much about, say, the top 200 most listened to artists on Spotify--Led Zeppelin ranks #239; Bruce Springsteen #329; The Who seemingly beyond the top 500--I am happy to have explored a pretty wide swath of acts in different rock & pop veins (as well as some jazz, classical, blues, country and much Broadway).

I've seen more than 300 different bands in concert--some many times--and fairly recently have made a point of catching artists I haven't before, including in New Wave (Duran Duran, The The, Echo & the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, Jesus & Mary Chain, The Church, Simple Minds) and pop diva (Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Cher) realms.

But a relative blind spot--deaf spot?--to this day has been soft/folk rock, typically dating from the 1970s.

Sure, I've seen the Eagles, CSN(Y), Jackson Browne and James Taylor.

But Bread, Seals & Crofts, Poco, English Dan & John Ford Coley, Three Dog Night, Loggins & Messina, Pure Prairie League, Little River Band and others of this ilk?

Never seen any and am really not sure I could name 5 songs combined. Though Pablo Cruise may have been the first concert I ever attended, with my family at ChicagoFest.

And--other than geographically--I've never been much into America.

But I've always liked "Sister Golden Hair"--and per some Spotifamiliarization, a few more other songs than I thought I did--so in the name of exploration, I attended their 50th Anniversary Tour stop Friday night with a friend at Waukegan's historic Genesee Theatre.

After few & far between visits over the years, this was my third trek to the Genesee in as many months, following shows by Herman’s Hermits and UFO.

As with Gary Puckett & the Union Gap opening for Herman’s Hermits, America was nicely preceded by The Buckinghams in what also seemed to be a Waukegan-only pairing, not a package tour.

Not hugely familiar with the Chicago-based ‘60s band beyond a few big hits, I enjoyed the 40-minute opening set, which had just three band members—originals Carl Giammarese (guitar/vocals) and Nick Fortuna (bass) plus Dave Zane (guitar)—playing acoustically while seated.

Having been scuttled for one reason or other in past attempts to see The Buckinghams, my friend Alison found it “Kind of a Drag” that we didn’t get the high-energy 8-piece band with horns experience that I guess is typical.

But with Fortuna nursing a broken foot and Giammarese in good voice despite what he termed a recent “face plant” leaving a considerable shiner, I liked the laid-back run through a string of 1967 chart hits: “Don’t You Care,” “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song),” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Susan” and “Kind of a Drag.” their only #1.

Giammarese was amiably conversant throughout, and led into a lovely solo rendition of The Beatles’ “I’m a Loser” by explaining he had recorded it on an album with another original Buckingham, Dennis Tufano, and that at a party, John Lennon complimented their version.

Another Beatles tune, “This Boy” was also played, as was the Zombies’ “You Make Me Feel So Good.”

And Giammarese shared that the Buckinghams—presumably in full stead—will be playing at Highwood’s Club 210 on April 11 and then back at the Genesee on August 8 as part of the Happy Together Tour (with The Turtles, Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night, The Association and Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & the Raiders).

Beginning their set with “Tin Man,” erstwhile America members Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell—who founded the band in 1970 with the late Dan Peek, when all three were sons of personnel at a U.S. Air Force base in London—spoke quite appreciatively of the Buckinghams, citing them as early influences along with many famed British acts of the era (some, such as Pink Floyd, for whom they would soon open).

Sharing lead vocals and often harmonizing while playing acoustic guitars, Beckley and Bunnell sounded good, backed by a bassist, electric guitarist and drummer Ryland Steen. (Beckley also occasionally manned a keyboard.)

During America’s second song, “You Can Do Magic,” Steen seemed to signal to a roadie, and upon the tune’s conclusion the music was halted because the drum head on his bass drum had broken.

As referenced above, I’ve been to hundreds of rock concerts, including by numerous hard rock legends, and I’ve never seen a show stalled by a broken drum.

Until America.

Beckley and Bunnell affably filled time by introducing stagehands, but I was somewhat surprised that they couldn’t audible a bit more imaginatively, perhaps by playing something that wasn’t setlisted.

They hemmed & hawed for more than five minutes until Steen sang a seemingly planned “Don’t
Cross the River,” albeit without the benefit of a kick drum.

The problem was then resolved and the show continued nicely, including a beautiful take on “I Need You” and “Ventura Highway,” both Top 10 hits from 1972.

I enjoyed the sonic dichotomy of “Here,” accompanied by historic band photos and both bass and guitar solos. Later, “Hollywood” also had an engaging slide-show backdrop.

America recorded several albums with famed Beatles producer, George Martin, and in speaking fondly of him, they preceded some pertinent songs of their own with a cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” a rendition which I candidly didn’t love--and which thematically probably should’ve led into “Lonely People” anyway.

As of now, the setlist for the Genesee show isn’t posted on, but if this one from Windsor isn’t exact, it’s quite close.

While there was nothing played that I didn’t like, some tunes clearly delighted—or slightly dragged —more than others, and the whole 90-minute affair was more a good show filled with fine music than a blazingly fantastic rock concert.

I never mind when an act sprinkles in some choice cover songs, but a take on the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” also seemed oddly amiss, and not just due to the lack of female voices. 

But the show-closing quartet of “Lonely People,” a highly-charged “Sandman,” sumptuous “Sister Golden Hair” and galloping “A Horse With No Name”—the last with two of the Buckinghams onstage—ended things on several high notes.

Beckley had shared that America has played at least 100 shows for 50 straight years, so it was about time I checked them out, and I’m glad I did.

Even if it probably won’t set me on a flag-waving frenzy to discover America’s fellow Lite-Rock forefathers. (And yes, Little River Band will flow into the Genesee, with John Ford Coley, on May 7.)

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