America is one of the few rock bands from the US that I’ve followed since first hearing them on the radio as a teenager. I first saw them perform at a bicentennial concert with the Beach Boys and Santana way back in 1976 and they’ve stuck with me ever since.
The band started in 1970 as a trio of multi-instrumentalists Dewey Bunnell, Dan Peek, and Gerry Beckley. Their core period of success ran until 1977 at which point Dan Peek left the band. Since then, Dewey and Gerry have carried on as a duo, recording and releasing records, but primarily touring the world averaging 100 shows a year. We saw them perform last night Tuesday November 6, 2014 at Yoshi’s in Oakland California with a crack backing band, some videos, stories to tell and lots of hits to play.
My sister owned America’s third record, Hat Trick (1973), which meant that I played it incessantly then and since. The album includes some of their most adventurous, accomplished work, though it was disappointing to them commercially. The opening track “Muskrat Love” was actually penned by Willis Alan Ramsey – later ruined by a cloying Captain & Tennille rendition. America’s version is a fitting opener for the album – a charming lead in to a beautiful set of rich and varied compositions. The piano driven “Wind Wave” highlights Dewey’s forceful vocal power while “She’s Gonna Let You Down” is one of Gerry’s prettiest love songs. Dan penned two tracks – the first, “It’s Life” features a clever transition driven, uncharacteristically, by a bit of synthesizer leading to a rocking coda. The title track runs longer than 8 minutes, with several complete changes of key and cadence and backing vocals by three members of The Beach Boys. The hard rocking “Green Monkey” includes lead electric guitar played by Joe Walsh and one of their most hippie-era appropriate lyrics “Speak the wisdom of a Redwood tree – speak to me”. In short, Hat Trick is the band’s most progressive work – small wonder it disappointed on sales charts at the time given they were building a fan base looking for more radio-friendly hits.
Now 40 years on, only one song from Hat Trick, “Green Monkey” made it into last night’s set list, though there were other deep cuts along with the hits, and covers. “Tin Man” started the show sounding fresh and vibrant. “Ventura Highway”, “Sister Golden Hair”, “Sandman”, “I Need You” and other popular songs were all crowd pleasers. A couple of covers found on their album Back Pages (2011) – “Til I Hear It From You” (Gin Blossoms) and “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell) sounded great – Gerry introducing that album as one where they covered songs they wished they had written. The show’s encore was Dewey’s “A Horse With No Name,” America’s first single and biggest hit. Occasionally Gerry had trouble with some of his singing – mostly phrasing, but Dewey didn’t miss a note and all in all vocals and musicianship were all top notch. At one point Dewey said, “We’re up here reliving our youth – something we’ve been doing for the past, oh, 20 years!” Sure a bit of nostalgia, but more importantly, a night of quality rock music in the American tradition.