in performance: america

america: dewey bunnell and gerry beckley.

Few acts seem more securely pinned to a time and place than pop-folk favorite America. Though now in its 42nd year of performance, the group’s heyday is linked, almost exclusively to a four year period – essentially, the first half of the ‘70s. That’s the era where its West Coast nurtured, post-Woodstock songs bloomed with enough broad-based pop appeal to keep frontmen Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley (and, let’s not forget, Dan Peek, who split from America in 1977 and died last year) at the top of the charts until disco and punk changed the mainstream landscape.

Not surprisingly, this was the era that enveloped America’s 95 minute performance last night at the Opera House. Bunnell and Beckley tossed in a pair of early ‘80s hits (You Can Do Magic, which seemed to tax the upper register of Beckley’s thinning vocal range, and The Border). There was also the appealing Jimmy Webb-penned title tune to the soundtrack of The Last Unicorn) and a smattering of cover tunes of America’s new Back Pages album (the best of which was a lively take on the Gin Blossoms hit ‘Til I Hear It From You, which placed Beckley in a greater vocal comfort zone). Outside of that, the performance was a nostalgia ride, pure and simple, with arrangements fashioned meticulously after the songs’ decades-old recorded versions.
For the most part, the crowd would not have had it any other way. A succession of four songs from America’s self-titled 1971 debut album (Riverside, Three Roses, I Need You and Here) still possessed a Laurel Canyon-esque sense of folk fancy while the set-closing Sandman (another staple from the debut album) darkened the performance’s sunny stance with a surprisingly jagged, rockish drive.

The show began on shaky ground with a sound mix that buried much of Bunnell’s still-rustic vocal lead on Tin Man. But the singer wound up walking away with the show’s star moment – a vibrant reading of Ventura Highway, an America hit that wears it age  especially well. Here, Bunnell led a light pop brigade charge full subtle but pronounced vocal harmonies and an instrumental stride that oozed honest, summery charm.


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