How We Came To See America
Forty-six years after their first concert, we finally saw America, that classic rock band that formed the soundtrack for many of us in the 70s.
Had it not been for the accidental bump into Bill Worrell, their genius lead guitar, we may have still missed an unforgettable concert, just this week, in historic Warren Ohio.
After meeting Worrell, we followed America’s tour schedule and targeted the closest drive to see them. We bought two seats at the Packard Music Hall for June 15 in Warren, Ohio, an hour outside of Cleveland. This venue was a small, old, yellow brick auditorium which seemed an unlikely spot for a famous group to appear. But with some reassurance from the folks at our hotel, we headed into town.
W.D. Packard, builder of the Packard automobile provided for a music hall in his estate. That building didn’t materialize for some years, but eventually, in 1955 it opened, and became the home of the W.D. Packard Concert Band. The hall since then has attained renown for its regular hosting of concerts for all tastes. It is the go-to place for music in Trumbull County. You would liken it to a small Ryman Auditorium.
Our image of America consists of three young faces with lots of hair. But neat. Their album covers telegraph thoughtful rock melody, with some leather and tie-dye. We weren’t sure what to expect, but given that they graduated from high school in 1969, a quick look in our mirror would set the tone.
Driving down Mahoning Street in Warren, we sense an event about to take off. Warren is a grand old city, but it has endured some devastating challenges with the collapse of the Ohio steel industry. Our earlier drive across West Market Street coming into town is heartbreaking and disturbing. Urban decay in full bloom.
But here, on Mahoning, the cars–all new, all shiny, SUVs and hobby convertibles– signify that money has arrived. The parking security wave us in like ground control, and we are placed within bumper distance of a classic 80s Corvette. The crowds are moving to the doors, and after scanning our online tickets, we are admitted to the front room.
Our Crowd Packs In
The Packard only seats 2,500 fans. So this event will be close, and if not intimate, still friendly, unlike the massive takes at the United Center in Chicago.
Around us, pony tails, tees, shorts, and sandals abound. And those are the men. Beside them are women outfitted in jewelry, dresses, capris and well made up. This crowd is the picture of the Boomer: under 50, over 70, need not apply. They are a happy, satisfied bunch who are eagerly looking for a reminder of just how good and innocent those raucous 60s and 70s really were, compared to now.
The Lights Go Down.
The host of the Packard appears and welcomes us all. He thanks us for being in this hallowed hall, and introduces Brennin Hunt, who opens for America.
Hunt, aka, Brennin is a smart guitarist/writer who finds a melody and picks it over repeatedly until it is glued into your head. He has a vocal range that hits Vince Gill highs, and with whom he has co-written songs.
“I have some CDs out front, and I’ll be there to sign ’em for ya. I’m a nobody so I have time to talk with you too. Thanks!”
He has fronted for America for only a couple of weeks, but he is the perfect appetizer. His music is calculated to attract and articulated with a free range across his Martin D-28. Lots of passion in his tenor voice, he delivers a strong melody. His best, and most phenomenal delivery is a cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. He was brave enough to take on this iconic piece, and he serves it beautifully, acoustic guitar booming out the hypnotic bass line. Quincy Jones would applaud.
Closing his act, Brennin invites our personal hero, Bill Worrell to the stage. It turns out that Worrell, aka “Billy The Kid” also played guitar for a tribute concert tour for The Eagles. To acknowledge that, Brennin and Worrell duet on New Kid In Town. Worrell’s smiling addition is effortless, and before the crowd can reseat themselves, America romps onto the stage.
Dewey Bunnell sports wire frames tucked in beneath neatly combed back silver hair. He may be seasoned, but he is in good shape, and with a confident, upright pose launches into Tin Man. He is playing a beautiful black, mother of pearl inlay Taylor acoustic.
To his side, Gerry Beckley is likewise be-spectacled, and strums his six string, tucked under his arm. Behind them, Worrell plays a third acoustic. To his right, Ryland Steen, a mere youngster is on drums, and to his right, Rich Campbell nimbly fingers a five string Spector bass.
I mention the band’s gear because the electrified acoustics give a full body of sound. You think you are listening to an orchestra, but it’s just five guys and a powerful amp.
Just then, I asked myself, why do guys like this keep at it? This is work, big time.
The crowd is on its feet. We have been waiting for this sound since 1976. For a moment, tonight it’s all music and light.
With hardly a pause, the group turns over “You Can Do Magic”, “Don’t Cross The River”, and “Daisy Jane” . We are enraptured, and a spotlight on the audience would show a sea of pasty, wrinkled faces with wide grins singing back at the band.
The guys perform their hits flawlessly like shooting bottles off a fence rail, one after another. They introduce Billy The Kid, and he takes off on an instrumental break, one of many in the show.
Meanwhile, the back stage screen flashes an encyclopedia of America images. From album covers to Peyote Indian meetings to Viet Nam gunboats and helicopters.
What is enchanting about this 70s light show, is that it is a 70s light show. No fireworks. No pedestals or trapeze work. No swinging microphone stands and no dance groups.
In all, America played 20 of their tunes. They were all good, and fresh.
You might expect that like other vintage groups, a back up team of vocalists would deliver the high notes.
Instead, Gerry Beckley hits them, if like climbing out on a drooping limb at the top of a tall tree, he was careful, and plucked the peach he was after, every time. A fearless display of singing.
The group soaked up several standing ovations, and only then did they turn over “Ventura Highway”. Beckley fingered that one on his Taylor acoustic and made it look devilishly simple.
In a quiet moment, Bunnell smiles and thanks us for listening, and remarks that they have been performing over 100 concerts a year, for 46 years.
“People ask why? Well, as long as you keep coming, we’ll keep playing.”
Asked and answered.
The band unloads a solid “Sandman”, heavily enhanced by Bill Worrell against a grey tone backdrop of Huey helicopters in flight over Viet Nam. They goose us up with “Sister Golden Hair” and then leave the stage.
We cheered them back, and then, like Christmas, they unleashed “A Horse With No Name” which made the evening complete.
Watching this enduring 70s band do its best stuff with cheerful ease awakened some dormant yearnings and memories. School. College. First love. First job. Money and independence.
It made me imagine the high times on West Market Street in Warren, when the steel industry was in its heyday, and wealth and the plans for future wealth were effervescent in everyone’s imaginations. Those days are long gone here, but as the town continues to remake itself, and this music plays on at Packard Hall, they will come back.
That is the joy of America.
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