Sunday, October 20, 2002

Pops and America bit of a strange brew

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Near the end of the Cincinnati Pops show Friday night, singer/guitarist Gerry Beckley asked the Music Hall crowd, "Has anyone here actually ever seen an America concert before?"

That was the hint that America wasn't, perhaps, the best fit for the Pops crowd, which was mostly clueless through the string of hits from the `70s, played by now-50-ish rockers. The show was about classic soft-rock tunes executed in understated style, of subtle arrangements and of lyrics that pale in comparison to what others were doing when America was in its heyday.

It was easy listening, and well played. Too bad it wasn't better integrated with the orchestra, which mostly droned in the background (except for a really odd introduction to "Tin Man").

America, a five-piece group, is anchored by its two founding members, Mr. Beckley and Dewey Bunnell. (Dan Peek left in 1977.) They sauntered out to "Riverside," and segued into "Ventura Highway," a traveling tune that rolled along hypnotically.

But the trip never really gained momentum. Mr. Beckley's ballads ("Don't Cross the River" and "Daisy Jane") left me cold because the words were unintelligible. He had some nice strumming in "Sandman" and "Sister Golden Hair," where he finally (out of desperation?) appealed to the audience to clap along.

Mr. Bunnell's voice may not have as much heft as it did 30 years ago, when "Horse With No Name" (their encore) hit the charts. But he sang nostalgic tunes like "Three Roses" with genuine feeling.

One of their highlights was "I Need You." Maybe it's not fair to compare it to George Harrison's song of the same name, but the band did it for us, when they played the Beatles', too. "California Dreamin'" was another tune associated with another group, The Mamas and The Papas - but the latter could hit the high notes.

The group picked up steam in "The Border," aided by their drummer since 1973, Willie Leacox. "Lonely People" clicked, too, with Mr. Beckley on harmonica and keyboard. Though guitarist Michael Woods and bass player Brad Palmer jumped in a few times, the most creative playing came in the encore.

Maestro Erich Kunzel and the Pops opened strongly, with epic classics of the silver screen.