By Doug Fox
If the past 38 years of radio airplay have taught us anything, it's that the rock band Boston has its own distinct, immediately recognizable sound.
Songs like "More Than a Feeling," "Peace of Mind," "Long Time," "Don't Look Back" and "Amanda" are instantly discerned from their very first notes -- no matter what part of the tune is playing when you first dial it in.
Yet the biggest question mark coming into the band's appearance at USANA Amphitheatre on Tuesday night was how closely it could replicate that trademark sound in a live setting. We're not necessarily talking about the band's powerful, yet intricately layered guitar sound, mind you, as Tom Scholz and company have proven the ability over the years to pull that off. No, we were mainly wondering how Tommy DeCarlo's vocals would fit into the overall scheme of things and whether any noticeable differences would throw things a bit off kilter when it came to experiencing songs that have been such a part of the musical landscape for nearly four decades.
It turns out those potential worries were all for naught as Boston powered through 19 songs in a 1-hour, 40-minute showcase that sounded nearly every bit as good as any of the band's albums (which seem to take eight or more years to record these days). DeCarlo, for those unaware, took over lead vocal duties following the death of original voice Brad Delp in 2007.
DeCarlo passed the "More Than a Feeling" challenge early on in the set. Not the song itself -- which came much later -- but the lab setting posited by its well-known lyric: "I lost myself in a familiar song ... I closed my eyes, and I slipped away."
Indeed, one could close their eyes for a few moments, simply listening to the songs live, and slip easily away into the hits that have launched more than 31 million album sales and untold radio spins since 1976.
With the vocal and sonic intrigue resolved early, one could spend the rest of the time soaking in the performance and seeing just how much goes into recreating everything in concert, even as the band members made it look almost effortless.
Drummer Curly Smith and bassist Tracy Ferrie were locked into their instruments, not to mention the beat, all night long -- but guitarists Scholz, Gary Pihl and Kimberley Dahme all played some keyboards at different parts of the show. There were several appearances of acoustic guitars on stands, for quick and easy accentuating access, and master tinkerer Scholz could often be seen tweaking things near his microphone stand or wandering over and adjusting a few dials on his side-stage monitors in the middle of songs.
It was also interesting to watch the guitarists work as a trio, whether they were all playing different parts in perfect harmony, or switching up on Boston's famous doubled melodies and lead breaks. It all resulted in a great recreation of the band's stellar catalog.
Things started casually enough, with Scholz appearing in a lone spotlight while playing some intro guitar wizardry in a completely nonplussed manner before jumping into the first power chords of "Rock and Roll Band," a song that is perfectly suited to kicking off a concert. "Smokin' " and "Feelin' Satisfied" followed before Scholz stepped to the microphone for the first time and posed a question to the crowd.
"How many of you think bands like us should record new music?" he asked -- eliciting the desired response in the form of enthusiastic applause. That set the band up to play the only two new songs in the set, "Last Day of School" -- or as Scholz called it, "the most memorable day of my life" -- and "Life, Love & Hope," the latter being the title track of its current album.
Worked in between all the expected hits -- songs like "Peace of Mind," "Cool the Engines," "Don't Look Back," "Amanda" and, yes, "More Than a Feeling" -- the band also played a handful of instrumentals, including much of the extended "Walk On Medley."
Dahme, who played bass on the band's "Corporate America" tour upon first joining the band, took a lead vocal turn on "Surrender to Me," and helped fill out the higher end with background vocals throughout the evening.
The band got an additional vocal boost in the back end of the set with the guest appearance of Siobhan Magnus, the sixth-place finisher from the ninth season of "American Idol." Magnus, who hails from Massachusetts and is the niece of bassist Ferrie, handled lead vocals for the beginning of "Walk On" and then provided some compelling background work the rest of the way.
"Foreplay/Long Time" closed the main set and the band had to hurry right back out in an attempt to beat the 11 p.m. venue curfew. Pihl rushed through band introductions before an adrenalized version of "Party." It was still 11:00 straight up when the final chord was struck and the merry band walked away.
With the question of the band's live sound having been put to rest early on, the only remaining post-show curiosity was this: Is there any other well-known band out there with two lead guitarists as tall and lanky as Scholz and Pihl -- the twin towers of the Boston skyline? Hmmm ... we'll have to ponder that one for a while.
The Doobie Brothers were in the opening slot Tuesday, cranking out 13 songs in an hour and 10 minutes. The band vacillated between popular hits and album tracks in a solid showcase of its deep career catalog.
As for original members, guitarists Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnston are still there, as is longtime sideman John McFee (guitar, pedal steel, violin).
Highlights included "Rockin' Down the Highway," "South City Midnight Lady," the roadhouse jam of "Don't Start Me Talkin'," "Long Train Runnin' " and "Takin' It to the Streets" -- which featured Simmons and bassist John Cowan trading off lines of the popular Michael McDonald vocal. The encore consisted of "China Grove" and "Listen to the Music."
There was an extremely appropriate line in "Black Water" when Simmons sang, "Well, if it rains, I don't care, don't make no difference to me." There was a brief, five-minute dispersal of moisture from the heavens early in the Doobies set, but then the skies cleared for the remainder of the show -- making for a near-perfect night of weather and music.