When a band who once dazzled us in the 1970s decides to release a new album of covers of such timeless jewels as Simon and Garfunkel's "America," Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" and Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages," you hope they can do them justice.
Well, fans of America will rejoice because Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley's winning combo of glorious vocals that haven't diminished with time, stellar musicianship and perfect arrangements triumphs on the just-released "Back Pages."
Among the gems they interpret on the project are the Beach Boys' "Caroline No," James Taylor's "Something in the Way She Moves" and Buffalo Springfield's "On the Way Home."
Voices of America: Dewey Bunnell (left) and Gerry Buckley.
"The idea was to choose songs that have left lasting impressions that inspired us to write music ourselves," Bunnell explains. "Or as Gerry has said, 'Songs we wish we had written.' The list is very long. We wanted to remain true to the original arrange- ments and feel of the songs. After that, it was simply about allowing our own vocal styles, and that of the other musicians we worked with, to make the songs special in our own way."
Not only fans have been overjoyed; feedback from the composers themselves has been impressive. Jimmy Webb hailed their cover of his "Crying in My Sleep" as "the best ever." And upon hearing America's version of his song "Caroline No," Beach Boy Brian Wilson declared it, "An absolutely stunning version I almost got tears."
"I could expect no greater compliment than to know Brian approved of our version," says Bunnell. "He has been a friend and source of inspiration for many years. 'Caroline No' always pulled at my heartstrings, too. It's a truly beautiful song."
* America performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater. HAPA will open the concert. Tickets are $65, $50 and $35 plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
As some of the songs they interpret are so iconic - Simon and Garfunkel's "America," which (superbly) opens the album, is almost sacred territory - one wonders if they had any qualms about tackling them?
"We simply decided to do our best with this group of songs," he continues. "They have already proved themselves to be timeless. 'America' by Simon & Garfunkel has always been a particular favorite of the many Paul Simon songs we would like to do."
America closes the new CD with a spare, slowed-down version of Dylan's "My Back Pages" transforming the more familiar Byrds' version into a haunting lament.
"We stripped it down to basically a beautiful grand piano played by John Jarvis, my vocal and Van Dyke Parks playing an inspired accordion to complete the arrangement," he notes. "I think it is a powerful, intense ending to the album, and inspired the album title."
They don't only dip into the past, as they also feature a wonderful version of The New Radicals' "Someday We'll Know" and cover songs by the Gin Blossoms ("Til I Hear It From You") and Fountains of Wayne ("A Road Song").
"There are so many great songwriters out there from different generations that we didn't want to limit our choices," Bunnell explains.
They also include Mark Knopfler's epic composition "Sailing to Philadelphia" (about the two 18th-century English surveyors who gave their names to America's Mason-Dixon line), from his album of the same name. The legendary guitarist contributes his distinctive guitar.
"I love most everything Mark does, songwriting and guitar playing, so it was a thrill have him contribute on guitar," Bunnell enthuses. "He is a musical treasure."
"Back Pages" is not the first time this classic folk-rock group has aligned with younger musicians. On their "Here & Now" album, released in 2007, they teamed with a number of notable guest musicians - all fans of the group - including Ryan Adams, Ben Kweller, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins and members of My Morning Jacket and Nada Surf.
"It's nice to think our music played a role in their early lives and musical careers," says Bunnell. "We do the new FOW song 'A Road Song' on 'Back Pages' because they are some of our favorite contemporary songwriters, and we are friends. We are all working in the same arena, so we have similar listeners regardless of age or generation."
A review of that album praised: "Over the decades, Beckley and Bunnell have lost none of their vocal compatibility or their guitar acumen. If anything, they're much better players in 2007 than they were when they first rode into pop music history on their 'Horse with No Name.' 'Here & Now' includes a live disc recorded in 2005, which finds America covering their chart-topping hits with a deft, subtle hand, reminding us that this group could hold its own with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Eagles and other early '70s contemporaries."
Missing the warmth of the Californian desert, on a rain-soaked English day in 1971, an 18-year-old Dewey Bunnell penned the song "Horse With No Name." A year later Bunnell's song propelled America to the top of the single and album charts. That chart success led to America in 1973, winning the Best New Artist Grammy, beating out contemporaries like the Eagles, Loggins & Messina, and John Prine.
America's three original members Bunnell, Beckley and Dan Peek had all met in England where their fathers served in the U.S. Air Force.
"Living in London after spending time in different locations in the States was a contrast that sharpened my focus on the natural surroundings of the two places, and the difference in weather," he recalls. "I was basically reminiscing about my youthful time living in California from 1962 to 1966 before my family moved to England. I do remember that era reflecting the ideal California lifestyle.
" 'Horse' was about my love of the desert, and the rain in England at the time certainly inspired me to write about the sights and sounds of the desert in contrast -'the heat was hot.' "
America's tight harmonies and acoustic guitar interplay, which were compared with Crosby, Stills and Nash, drew audiences to their sunny sound on both sides of the Atlantic.
Their second album, "Homecoming," included the huge hit "Ventura Highway." Next came the band's George Martin-produced tracks, "Tin Man," "Lonely People" and the No. 1 hit, "Sister Golden Hair."
In 1977, Peek departed to become a successful contemporary Christian singer. He died in July.
America had one more Top 10 hit in 1982 with "You Can Do Magic." In all, the band has released more than 20 albums, with 11 Top 40 singles.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, America is rekindling memories on tour and celebrating the release of "Back Pages" including its versions of songs like "Woodstock" and "On the Way Home" in concert.
"This project has opened up a rich new outlet for us to arrange and sing songs that are part of our musical DNA," says Bunnell. "We hope to keep making music for years to come, be it our own writing or interpreting the work of other writers."
After a successful ukulele fest, the Four Seasons Resorts Lanai will host the inaugural Lanai Slack Key Guitar Festival on Friday and Saturday. Throughout the two-day event, audiences will be treated to complimentary performances by Grammy Award and Na Hoku Hanohano award winners, including Dennis Kamakahi, John Keawe, Sonny Lim, Kevin Brown, Cindy Combs, Benny Uyetake, and Brother Noland.
Friday's concert at the Manele Bay runs from 6 to 9 p.m., and the musicians perform at The Lodge at Koele on Saturday from 3 to 7 p.m.
Other events include a Slack Key Java Jam with Kevin Brown at Coffee Works on Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m.; and Benny Uyetake playing at Caf 565 on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. All performances are free.
When a New York Times reviewer recently praised guitarist Benjamin Verdery as "iconoclastic," the writer was referring to his unique talent for breaking with convention and tradition.
* Here is an acclaimed classical musician hailed by Guitar Magazine for "unquestionably the finest playing of Bach ever heard on six strings," who also loves to include classical arrangements of songs by Jimi Hendrix and Prince on his recordings.
* A brilliant composer celebrated for works for large guitar ensembles, including the 18-minute "Pick & Roll," for multiple guitars, saxophone, violin and percussion delivered by a basketball player.
* A soulful composer of works inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, such as "Be Kind All The Time," a set of eight etudes dedicated to the Dalai Lama, incorporating chop sticks, paper clips, prepared guitar and digital delay.
* A beloved guitar teacher, head of the guitar department at Yale University, who for many years conducted master classes on Maui, attracting students from around the globe, who would present free community concerts, including performances of songs like Hapa's beautiful "Lei Pikake" arranged for 22 guitars.
* And an innovative musician willing to explore artistic frontiers which led to guitarist Andy Summers of The Police asking him to tour and record together.
Following the release of their collaborative CD, "First You Build a Cloud," the duo recently performed a concert at the University of Southern California.
"When you pair up British guitar icon Andy Summers and the awesome performer-composer-teacher Benjamin Verdery, who's been hailed as "an American original, an American master," and you plop them down at USC's Bovard Auditorium well, wow, the world of classical guitar just might never be the same," the L.A. Weekly declared.
The concert ranged from The Police's "Bring On the Night" to the soothing "Now I'm Free," inspired by a trip to Hana.
"It was really fun with a lot of improvisation," says Ben. "It was really successful."
Tonight Ben will team for part of his concert in the McCoy Studio Theater, with Hoku award-winning guitarist Jeff Peterson. Jeff attended Ben's classical guitar classes for a few years, and they both share a love for Hawaiian slack key guitar.
"There will be music from all corners of the world, from Tibet to Africa and Spain," Ben continues.
Jeff will join him for some duets including two songs arranged for guitar by Keola Beamer - "Pua Lili Lehua" by Kahauanu Lake and "Holo Wa'apa" by Lena Machado.
"They're both so beautiful," Ben notes. " 'Pua' is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard."
As to his solo presentation, he says he'll "probably include an electric guitar piece based on The National's album 'High Violet,' and premiere my big, new work, 'Now and Ever,' which is kind of a musical statement about slavery, and maybe an Elvis tune and some Jimi (Hendrix). It's going to be a great guitar show with a variety of styles, the whole gamut, with a little Bach thrown in."
"I'm thrilled," says Ben of the collaboration. "We're really working well together. Jeff thinks I bring a whole different view point to slack key; and Jeff has been teaching me a lot. A duet album is definitely in the works, and I want to base it completely on the elements. We're going to bring something new to the table - otherwise why do it?"
* Ben Verdery performs tonight at 7:30 in Solo Sessions in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's McCoy Studio Theater. Tickets are $25 and $45 for VIP (with artist meet-and-greet), plus applicable fees at the MACC box office. Call 242-7469 or visit mauiarts.org.
REO Speedwagon will rock the MACC's Castle Theater on Nov. 27. The multiplatinum-selling classic rockers are best-known for hits like "Roll With the Changes," "Can't Fight This Feeling," "Ain't Stop Rocking," "Keep On Loving You," and "Take It On the Run."
Over the years these arena rock favorites sold more than 22 million albums in the U.S. and scored a string of gold and platinum records.
REO Speedwagon is still fronted by lead vocalist Kevin Cronin, and longtime band members include founding keyboardist Neal Doughty.
* Pre-sale tickets are available for MACC members beginning at 9 a.m. Friday, priced at $65, $76 and $85 (plus applicable fees), at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.