(July 31, 2017, Flushing NY) There are only a few situations where I don’t mind being the only black guy in a crowd of 60,000 white folks where there’s lots of shouting and beer taps flowing like water at Niagara Falls.
Those scenarios almost always have two requirements:
One is it that it involves music.
The other is that the revelers’ average ages must be somewhere around 55 – or higher – because experience has taught me that the higher the age, the less likely it is that someone’s overdose on craft beer will get the best of him (or her)… and create unnecessary havoc for me and/or those around me.
Both of those conditions were met this past weekend at Citi Field Stadium in Flushing, NY, where five classic-rock and one soul/pop band whose heydays spanned the 1970s and ’80s played a two-day concert dubbed “The Classic East” totaling 100 songs and about 12 hours of great (old) music!
The six bands were – in order of performances – The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and Eagles on Saturday; Earth, Wind & Fire, Journey and Fleetwood Mac on Sunday.
The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac were the two headliners, with the other four groups serving as opening acts (although all of them have served as headliners at one point or another during their long careers, including EWF who are in the middle of their own tour as I type this).
Ok, admittedly, I wasn’t the only brother in this lively, mostly middle-age-and-above audience, but I was probably one of fewer than 20 black folks by my estimates, which apparently included Whoopi Goldberg (according to my mother who watches “The View”).
The scant number of people of color in this crowd was understandable considering the price tag (yes, we are still separated by economics folks) and the predominance of rock music represented by these acts.
But these six acts were groups I wanted to see because, well, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and who would pass up a chance to see these six multi-platinum acts from one’s youth, two-thirds of which are in the Rock Hall of Fame – all in the same venue on the same weekend…regardless of color?!?
So see them I did.
And I was so moved by the overall experience that I’d like to give readers a few insights – and a few superlatives – right here at djrobblog. These are my 13 takeaways from “The Classic East” (note: the companion west coast version, “The Classic West,” occurred in Los Angeles two weeks prior).
1. Best Stand-In for a Lead Singer:
Vince Gill during The Eagles show. Guest vocalist Gill is a classic country singer who filled in capably for the late Glenn Frey on songs like “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “New Kid In Town.” He also was spot-on while covering Randy Meisner’s “Take It To The Limit.” The only clinker was that the usually rebel-rousing “Heartache Tonight” was sung in a lower register than the original, but that was understandable given the vocal heights to which Frey took the original.
Honorable mention: Frey’s son, Deacon, who has a great voice but also got points for being a dead-ringer for his late father – particularly during the elder Frey’s younger, long-haired days. The crowd’s loud applause when first seeing his image on the big screen had to be awe-inspiring for the young legacy.
2. Best Show-Stealer:
While we’re on the Eagles, their show’s best moments may have belonged to member Joe Walsh, who dazzled and entertained with performances of his own material, particularly “Life’s Been Good,” “Rocky Mountain Way,” “In The City” and “Funk #49,” the latter a song he recorded with the James Gang in 1970 before joining the Eagles. Walsh’s songs had always livened up the Eagles’ catalog, and this weekend was certainly no exception, especially on “Funk #49,” the horn section for which could have rivaled that of Earth, Wind & Fire.
3. Boldest Statement of the Night:
During the lead-in to what was to have been his group Steely Dan’s encore performance, leader Donald Fagen quipped that normally the band would have left the stage for the “pantomime” that precedes all encores, but “we’re gonna stay right here!”
Fagen’s statement only made sense considering that, now, concert set lists are available on the Internet for anyone to see them in advance; plus most people realize when they haven’t yet heard that signature song by the group. In other words, the element of surprise is pretty much removed from encore sets anymore, so why go through the motions of leaving the stage only to return 30 seconds later.
Too bad Fagen’s wasn’t a lead that other acts followed.
4. Opening Act That Was Most Like A Headliner:
Easily Earth, Wind & Fire. I had the privilege of seeing their “2054: The Tour” show in Chicago three nights before their Classic East performance, so I pretty much knew what to expect. Still, the venerable R&B band didn’t disappoint.
They cut about seven of their deeper jams out of their headlining gig for this more pop-oriented audience, but added one (their 1978 cover of the Beatles‘ “Got To Get You Into My Life”) for good measure. They had the crowd groovin’ and dancing nearly the entire time, even if the audience wasn’t as familiar with EWF’s lyrics as they were some of the other groups. But that certainly didn’t stop me from really getting into it!
5. Opening Act That Was Most Like An Opening Act:
The Doobie Brothers. They were first out of the chute on Saturday, and it probably was not coincidental that they sounded like they belonged in the opening slot. There were hardly any stage theatrics, and the sound system didn’t seem to match well with the group’s instruments.
Still, the Doobies set the tone for the good time that was to come. Plus, it was nice seeing original members (and lead singers) Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons on stage together rolling though pre-Michael McDonald hits like “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me),” “Long Train Running” and “China Grove.” Simmons even took a respectable stab at McDonald’s “Takin’ It To The Streets.”
The Doobies were joined onstage by Little Feats’ Billy Payne.
6. Best Karaoke Moment:
Take your pick: Eagles’ “Hotel California,” the Doobies’ “Black Water” (the coda, that is), Journey’s “Lights” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” all had respectable singalong moments from the crowd. But the clear winner was Journey’s ubiquitous “Don’t Stop Believin’,” their signature tune that is by now the most overplayed 35-year-old song this side of the 21st century – thanks to its mid-2000s “Glee” resurgence. I used to love the tune, but now it grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard.
7. Least-Missed Lead Singer:
Speaking of Journey, that would be former frontman Steve Perry. By now, Journey fans who’ve recently seen them perform live should have gotten used to new lead-singer Arnel Pineda. He’s been with the band for nearly a decade. In fact, in honor of Pineda (and perhaps as a message to the Steve Perry faithful who just won’t let go of the past), band mate Jonathan Cain praised the Filipino singer as the “veteran vocalist of our group” during member introductions. Take that, Steve Perry fans!
8. Least-Missed Lead Singer, Too:
Unfortunately, when Philip Bailey – the legendary falsetto voice of EWF – asked the crowd “how many true Earth, Wind & Fire fans do we have out there?” the real answer came not when the crowd shouted back in approval, but minutes later when an image of late lead baritone singer (and group founder) Maurice White flashed across the huge screen in a tribute to the band’s beloved member. There wasn’t a peep out of the audience. It was almost as if they had placed a pic of a random guy up there.
This was in sharp contrast to when images of Glenn Frey had popped up during the Eagles’ performance, or even when EWF flashed those same images of White during their Chicago stop a few days earlier. In both of those instances the artists were shown true fan appreciation.
It likely didn’t help matters that Bailey has filled in nicely for White ever since the latter stopped touring with the band roughly 25 years ago, making White’s 2016 passing more of a mere footnote when it comes to their live performances.
9. Best Deep-Cut Song Grab:
This is where things get personal, but for me it was Steely Dan’s “Aja,” the title track to their landmark 1977 album.
Seeing Steely Dan perform was special in and of itself. But to see them perform this deep cut, in all its jazz-pop glory, was a true treat. Not a second of the original eight-minute sonic masterpiece was spared.
Adding to the joy was the father-and-son couple seated directly in front of us, both of whom were diehard Steely Dan fans who’d flown all the way to New York from the U.K. to see their favorite band perform. The two knew all the lyrics to this and every other Steely Dan tune played, and they weren’t afraid to let everyone around them know it, either. (BTW, I was right there with them.)
It was awesome stuff to watch!
10. Best Surprise Song Addition (not in the Classic West set list):
This also goes to Steely Dan for two songs: “Peg” and “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.” Of course, those adds came at the expense of one tune that apparently was on the Classic West set list and cut from the East show: “Black Cow” from Aja. That omission, as well as that of classics like “Deacon Blues” and “Do It Again” made Steely Dan’s performance fall just shy of perfection.
By the way, Steely Dan was without original member Walter Becker (illness) but was accompanied by famed musician Larry Carlton.
11. Over-Indulgence Award:
The band Journey gets this one hands down… on several fronts. First, founder Neal Schon apparently was in a competition with himself to see which guitar solo he could do the longest. The Schon riffs that accompanied “Only The Young” and “La Do Dā” (a song from the band’s first album with Perry, Infinity) were far too long, exceeded in their self-indulgence only by the five-minute long drum solo by Steve Smith on the latter tune.
To add to the bombast of Journey’s show, the band’s songs were too heavy on power chords, a notch too high in decibel levels, and waaaaayy too long in duration. But at least they gave it their all, which is more than I can say for this next group.
12. Biggest Disappointment:
That would be Fleetwood Mac. To say they lacked enthusiasm and chemistry would be an understatement. The five notoriously dysfunctional members (when it comes to dealing with each other, that is) appeared to be just going through the motions, with the exception of guitarist and vocalist Lindsey Buckingham, who did his best to rev up the crowd while alternating songs with fellow vocalists Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie.
McVie, for her part, both looked and sounded great. But her main contributions to the group (“Little Lies,” “Everywhere,” “You Make Lovin’ Fun” and “Think About Me” – all of which they performed, btw) were never really rockers to begin with, just nice little pop ditties that are fun to listen and sing to.
But Nicks’ renditions of signature tunes like “Dreams,” “Rhiannon,” “Gypsy” and “Sara” sounded sleepy at best. Nicks hasn’t been able to hit the high end of her vocal range for years now, but even if you disregarded that limitation, she still came across as uninspiring. “Landslide” offered a bit of a recovery for her and generated the loudest crowd response. But, oddly, her next biggest applause came during the coda for “Gypsy,” when she did her signature 360-degree twirl (about four revolutions of it) – a move that was reminiscent of the song’s music video from 35 years ago.
Buckingham slowed the normally upbeat “Never Going Back Again” to the pace of a children’s lullaby, lulling me to near-sleep. Another song choice, “I’m So Afraid,” was so unfamiliar and ill-timed (near the end of the set), that it drove throngs of people to the exit doors early.
And despite Buckingham’s earlier proclamations to the contrary, the band’s chemistry was clearly off.
On at least two tunes (“You Make Lovin’ Fun” and the finale “Don’t Stop”) the band started and stopped due to mistakes, then restarted again. In the first case, it sounded as if bassist John McVie (who received negligible face time on the big screens compared to the four others) had skipped to the next song in the set (“Dreams”). And in the intro to the latter, his former wife Christine’s piano seemed off-key.
There was also very little dialogue beyond the obligatory thank-yous. Stevie paid tribute to late Eagle Glenn Frey. Christine McVie thanked the others for allowing her back in the group (she’s been back for three years now), and Lindsey talked positively about the group’s synergy and what lies beneath the surface.
You know, the surface of dysfunction and drama that has accompanied this band for nearly all the years of its classic lineup. What lies beneath – namely their “love” for one another – is the glue that’s kept them together for so long, as Buckingham put it.
Though love may have kept them together, Lindsey’s speech rang about as hollow as the hug he and Stevie later shared, which predictably drew applause. There was so little interplay, it was almost as if the band had been in a huge fight before the show and had to put on their best amicable faces for the public.
But Fleetwood Mac can still harmonize better than most. This was evident on “The Chain” and “Little Lies” – as well as other big hits – proving that when a group this accomplished has its act together, they can be hard to top.
Which leads me to another act who proved hard to top and the weekend’s last accolade…
13. The Classic East’s Best Overall Performance:
As much as I wasn’t expecting it, this one goes to the Eagles.
Admittedly, the Eagles were the band that I looked forward to seeing the least when this show was first announced months ago. By the time their show ended, however, it was clearly the highlight of Day 1. And nothing on Day 2 could top it (no offense to my favorite band Earth, Wind & Fire).
What worked so well for the Eagles were their vocals (Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmidt, Deacon Frey and Vince Gill all took turns), whether as soloists or in the aggregate. Their musicianship was also on point. The deal was sealed for me when they unleashed a string quintet for “The Last Resort” and for set closer “Desperado.”
Their songs were downers at times – I could swear there was a string of about eight ballads in a row before Joe Walsh livened things up – but that was a function of the Eagles’ repertoire, not a reflection of the quality with which the band played, which was close to flawless.
The Eagles, like many of the groups this weekend, have had their ups and downs through the decades, but – unlike that other ’70s powerhouse with whom they shared top billing – their chemistry was intact and undeniable.
And it seemed like they actually wanted to be there – for all 24 songs that they played (which was more than any other group).
Perhaps it was a chance to show the world that, like Earth Wind & Fire, this group will be alright without one of its biggest voices… a voice so capably represented by a next generation singer in son Deacon Frey and one of the concert’s biggest gets in Vince Gill.
Whatever it was, the Eagles’ performance was clearly the best overall.
Yep, even over all the other groups that this brother was looking so much more forward to seeing… and that’s saying an awful lot!
Doobie Bros. Set List:
- Jesus is Just Alright
- Rockin’ Down the Highway
- Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)
- Dark Eyed Cajun Woman
- Sweet Maxine
- Eyes of Silver
- Clear as the Driven Snow
- Takin it to the Streets (Pat Simmons lead)
- The Doctor
- Black Water
- Long Train Running
- China Grove
- Without You (encore)
- Listen to the Music (encore)
Steely Dan Set List:
- Hey Nineteen
- Time Out of Mind
- Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
- Black Friday
- Dirty Work (leads sang by three female background singers)
- Don’t Take Me Alive
- My Old School
- Kid Charlemagne
- Reelin’ In the Years
Eagles Set List (lead vocalist in parentheses):
- Seven Bridges Road (all)
- Take It Easy (Deacon Frey)
- One of These Nights (Don Henley)
- Take It To The Limit (Vince Gill)
- Tequila Sunrise (Gill)
- Witchy Woman (Henley)
- I Can’t Tell You Why (Timothy B Schmidt)
- Lyin Eyes (Gill)
- In A New York Minute (Henley)
- Those Shoes
- Peaceful Easy Feeling (Deacon Frey)
- Best of My Love (Henley)
- Love Will Keep Us Alive (Schmidt)
- New Kid In Town (Gill)
- The Last Resort
- Already Gone (Deacon Frye)
- In The City (Joe Walsh)
- Heartache Tonight (Gill)
- Life’s Been Good (Walsh song)
- Funk #49 (James Gang cover; Walsh)
- Life In the Fast Lane (Henley)
- Hotel California (Henley)
- Rocky Mountain Way (Walsh song)
- Desperado (Henley)
Earth, Wind & Fire Set List:
- Shining Star
- Getaway (w/ rare intro)
- Let Your Feelings Show (short interlude)
- Serpentine Fire
- Kalimba Story
- Got to Get You Into My Life
- That’s The Way of The ?
- After The Love Has Gone
- Boogie Wonderland
- Let’s Groove
- Fantasy (Encore)
- In The Stone (Encore)
Journey Set List:
- Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)
- Be Good To Yourself
- Only The Young
- Stone In Love
- Any Way You Want It
- Open Arms
- Who’s Crying Now
- La Do Dā
- Wheel in the Sky
- Don’t Stop Believin’
- Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’
Fleetwood Mac Set List:
- The Chain (all)
- You Make Lovin Fun (C. McVie)
- Dreams (Nicks)
- Second Hand News (Buckingham)
- Rhiannon (Nicks)
- Everywhere (McVie)
- Bleed to Love Her (Buckingham)
- Tusk (all; included video of USC Marching Band)
- Sara (Nicks)
- Say You Love Me (McVie)
- Big Love (Buckingham solo, acoustic guitar version)
- Landslide (Nicks; dedicated to Glenn Frey)
- Never Going Back Again (Buckingham)
- Think About Me (McVie)
- Gypsy (Nicks)
- Little Lies (McVie)
- Gold Dust Woman (Nicks)
- I’m So Afraid (Buckingham)
- Go Your Own Way (Buckingham)
- Don’t Stop (McVie, Buckingham)