Among the revelations surfacing after the untimely death of Michael Jackson came the rather surprising news that the king of pop had once contacted the band America to secure permission to record a new version of their classic hit "A Horse With No Name." Snippets of the new version titled "A Place With Name" leaked on the Net, but as of yet the complete song remains concealed.
"I don't remember exactly when we first heard the Michael Jackson recording," says founding America member Gerry Beckley."We were quite surprised and very honored."
In more recent times America attracted the attention of a number of hip, contemporary musicians who joined forces to help the band create one of its best albums since its heyday in the 1970s.
Founding members Dewey Bunnell (left) and Gerry Beckley still front the group.
Former Smashing Pumpkins' guitarist James Iha and Fountains of Wayne's mastermind Adam Schlesinger signed on to produce "Here & Now," released in 2007. And the roster of indie rock artists contributing included Ryan Adams, Ben Kweller, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, and Nada Surf's Matthew Caws.
"Both Dewey (Bunnell) and I were big fans of Adam Schlesinger and Fountains of Wayne," Beckley explains. "I started working with Adam on some songs and he introduced me to his production partner James Iha. When Sony Records heard that we were all working together they made an offer for the resulting album."
America's signature gorgeous, layered harmonies and catchy melodies abound on the new material, leading a reviewer to conclude: "On repeated listens, 'Here & Now' gains stature, and it not only feels like a successful comeback, but the record that America fans of all ages have been waiting decades to hear."
* America performs at 7 p.m. Saturday at the MACC's Events Lawn. Hapa will open the concert; Maui-based "Band Champ" winners "Why Bother" (Dane Lum Ho and Kala'e Camarillo) will also perform. Gates open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $40 general admission, and $65 for VIP seating, plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org
"The whole project was inspiring," Beckley continues. "A lot of great things came about as a result. We re-entered the Billboard charts after 20 years, and we appeared for the first time ever on 'David Letterman.' "
America's foundations were initially laid in England. The sons of American military personnel stationed in the U.K., Beckley, Bunnell and Dan Peek began playing together in high school. One day, so the story goes, while sitting in a cafe wondering what they should call themselves, the trio spotted an Americana jukebox.
As America, the trio began playing gigs in the London area, including opening for The Who at the legendary Roundhouse.
"We did many great gigs in our first year in the U.K.," Beckley recalls. "Opening for Elton John, The Who, Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens. It was a fantastic start."
America's debut album, a folk-pop classic released in 1971, only achieved moderate success. But when an additional song, originally called "Desert Song," was included on a re-release, their future was secured. "A Horse with No Name" became a worldwide hit.
"We were and are still amazed at how our career started off so quickly," Beckley notes. "It's hard to imagine anything happening any faster than what occurred to us professionally.We won a Grammy for being the best new artist of 1972. That was part of the first album'ssuccess."
The group's acoustic guitar format, tight harmonies and generally sunny sound, led some critics to label them an imitation of Crosby, Stills and Nash. It didn't seem to bother the musicians. "The comparisons to CS&N are very flattering," says Beckley. "We've always been huge fans of their music. I grew up mostly listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys."
With each successive album America scored hit after hit. Their second recording, "Homecoming," featured "Ventura Highway" and "Don't Cross the River." Next came "Hat Trick" and the single "Muskrat Love." The eight-minute title track centerpiece of the album featured vocal help from one of their idols, Beach Boy Carl Wilson.
"Carl was one of our closest friends," says Beckley. "To have the opportunity to know, tour and record with him was a highlight of our entire career."
Another highlight arrived in the shape of celebrated producer George Martin, who had helped polish the Beatles' sound. Beginning with "Holiday" - featuring the hits "Tin Man" and "Lonely People" - Martin produced a number of their albums and top-charting songs including their No. 1 single, "Sister Golden Hair."
In the last few years the group has released a handful of live albums as well as its first Christmas collection, and the career-spanning box set "Highway."
Still blessed with fine voices, founding members Beckley and Bunnell continue to please fans performing their classic songs and newer material.
"It was clearly the golden oldies that the crowd came to hear," noted an Ontario Sun review. "And America didn't disappoint. Backed by three tight-sounding and talented musicians, Bunnell and Beckley have aged remarkably well, and their combined voices soared high and strong."
Seattle-based alternative rock band Candlebox makes its Maui debut tonight at The Cellar 744 in Lahaina.
Formed in the early 1990s, Candlebox rode the grunge bandwagon to multiplatinum success. Rooted in a classic hard rock style, they took their name from a Midnight Oil song. The raging, anti-drug rocker "You" from their debut album became a breakthrough hit, while the power ballad "Far Behind," was a major hit on both mainstream and alternative radio. After a couple of follow-up albums they disbanded, and finally resurfaced last year with the new CD, "Into The Sun."
* Tickets are $25 advance, $30 night of show. VIP tickets are available for $50 advance, $60 night of show, which includes a signed band poster, a meet and greet with the band and a bottle of champagne. Tickets are available online at www.groovetickets.com, or by calling Groove Tickets at 877-71-GROOV, or at The Cellar 744. Doors open at 7 p.m.