This Week I Saw America… in Chicagoland (a concert review)

The irony of the folk-rock band America is that they were actually formed in London, England.  They were a trio of teenagers who were in the U.K. by virtue of their dads who were American servicemen stationed on a U. S. Air Force base there.

The beauty of America is that we still get to see and hear them perform nearly 50 years later in small intimate venues like the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, IL, where they performed this past Saturday, November 17, to a crowd of nearly a thousand very appreciative fans.

America (Dewey Bunnell, left, and Gerry Beckley) performed at the Arcada Theatre in the Chicago area on Nov 16 & 17, 2018.  Photo courtesy djrobblog (Nov. 17)

America – still consisting of original members Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley – is in the midst of a tour commemorating its 48th anniversary as a band, and the Saturday show was the second of a two-night stand at the Arcada.  Bunnell and Beckley were backed by a great three-piece band, which included some stellar drum work by a young-ish Ryland Steen, formerly of the California ska punk band Reel Big Fish, plus bass, guitar, keyboards and backing vocals by Andy Barr and veteran musician Richard Campbell.

The group performed 21 songs over nearly two hours, including ten of their eleven American top-40 hits, plus a Beatles cover as a tribute to the late George Martin, the famous producer who helped shape the Beatles’ sound in the 1960s and did the same for America after connecting with the trio during the mid-1970s for some of their biggest hits.

The Beatles tune was “Eleanor Rigby,” perhaps an odd choice for a cover until you remember the song’s prominent story line about “all the lonely people,” which was the inspiration for America’s own “Lonely People,” a top-5 song produced by Martin and written by the late former member and band cofounder Dan Peek and his wife Catherine.

“Lonely People” was on the set list, along with its immediate predecessor, “Tin Man,” the cryptic Wizard of Oz-themed tune that Dewey Bunnell wrote (and sang) and which kicked off the show.

“Tin Man” was followed by their ‘80s comeback hit, “You Can Do Magic,” the only one of their eleven top-40 singles not written by one of the band members (Russ Ballard wrote and produced it).  Gerry Beckley sang lead on “Magic” as he did on many other tracks, including the underrated 1975 ballad “Daisy Jane,” the more successful love song “I Need You” – one of four songs performed from their self-titled début album – and the tempo-changing “Here,” also from that album.  It was on the slow parts of “Here” that Beckley’s tenor vocals mostly resembled a child-like quality, adding an innocent yet plaintive element to the song’s beginning and end, complementing the otherwise more aggressive middle section.

“Here” was followed by “Ventura Highway” (from the band’s second album Homecoming), on which Bunnell got to shine.  While the band played it, an audience member in the front row held up an old Warner Brothers vinyl 45 rpm record (presumably of “Highway”), prompting Bunnell to acknowledge the relic, quipping “some of the people here don’t even know what a 45 is.”  I seriously doubted that considering the average age of the crowd in attendance.  

Bunnell also sang “Greenhouse,” a song from their 1994 album Hourglass, along with “The Border,” the band’s last top-40 hit in 1983, and “California Dreamin’,” their cover of The Mamas and The Papas 1966 tune.  It was during the latter that Bunnell and Beckley discussed their beginnings on that American military base and how they’d been influenced by all the rock and roll acts that came through and played London, including Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd among them.

Other of the show’s highlights included the harder rocking medley of “Cornwall Blank” (from Homecoming) and “Hollywood,” a song from their fourth album, Holiday.  While they performed, a video montage of various Hollywood-related images played on the big screen behind the band, including shots of America receiving its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.

Consolation? America has never been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they did receive their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame In 2012.

On the funky, reggae-influenced “Woman Tonight,” Dewey and Bunnell traded vocals as they had on the 1975 original, which was a song ironically written by fellow member Dan Peek.  As I listened to what was perhaps the funkiest song in America’s repertoire, I couldn’t help but wonder how “Woman Tonight” could have missed the top 40 (it peaked at No. 44 in the U.S.).  

“Woman” was from the band’s fifth album, entitled Hearts.  And if you’re sensing a theme here with albums that began with the letter H, it’s no accident.  Aside from their self-titled first album, America’s next six studio albums all began with the letter – Homecoming, Hat Trick, Holiday, Hearts, Hideaway and Harbor.  

It was a gimmick the band would even use for their first greatest hits collection, History/America’s Greatest Hits, in 1975.

The two greatest of those hits were appropriately saved for last during the show.  First was the 1975 No. 1 single “Sister Golden Hair,” followed by the encore performance of their first and biggest hit, the metaphor-filled “A Horse With No Name,” from 1972.

By this point, a dutiful security guard was heavily enforcing the no-full-video policy – at least in our section of the venue.  As a result, footage of the last two songs was sketchy at best.  Nevertheless, I was able to capture some, which you can see on the YouTube clips below. 

All in all it was great to see and hear America perform so well after all these years.  Hearing the songs done in their original keys and with a bit of a harder edge – thanks to the stellar backing band, the sound engineers and some pretty powerful amplifiers – was also refreshing (if not a bit loud for those of us 50 and over, which would be the majority of those in attendance).

But no one was complaining when it was all over.  America came and conquered for two hours, and we were all the happier for it.  


R.I.P. Dan Peek

America’s second album, Homecoming, with (l-to-r) Dan Peek, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell

America’s Set List for the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, IL on November 17, 2018:

  1. Tin Man
  2. You Can Do Magic
  3. Don’t Cross The River
  4. Daisy Jane
  5. Riverside
  6. I Need You
  7. Here
  8. Ventura Highway
  9. Driving
  10. Eleanor Rigby
  11. Cornwall Blank/Hollywood
  12. Survival
  13. The Border
  14. Greenhouse
  15. Woman Tonight
  16. Only In Your Heart
  17. California Dreamin’ 
  18. Lonely People
  19. Sandman
  20. Sister Golden Hair 
  21. (Encore) A Horse With No Name