By Bruce Rushton
Those -- and there were a substantial number in attendance -- who saw Boston at the Illinois State Fair on Tuesday will, I suppose, have one of two reactions.
It was really cool! They played all the big songs, except "Hitch A Ride" -- that's my favorite, but, oh well. Still, pretty awesome!
Or something along the lines of what I thought, which can be summed up in a single word: meh. Extrapolated: Boy, 1976 sure was a long time ago, wasn't it?
For those of us who were there and of a mindset, Boston was an undelible part of growing up in the 1970s. Their debut album sold 17 million. They were bigger than Nirvana. And then they weren't. The coattail effect never lasts, and so it was with Boston, which has put out six albums now, each one less successful than the one before. And there is a reason for that.
While Boston's debut was brilliant and still holds up well, there is little to differentiate Boston from Asia and other bottom-of-the-barrel period bands once you get past that first record. Sure, there are a few bright spots, but for every "Feeling Satisfied" there is an "I Need Your Love," and by the time Third Stage, their third album, was released in 1986, the jig was pretty much up. Boston? Oh, yeah, that band I liked before I got into Styx. That is, for many of us, the legacy.
The Who are remembered as being one of the first bands to perform an album in its entirety, and that is a formula that Boston would have done well to remember during its hour and 45 minute set. Too much of Tuesday's show was self-indulgent noodling, in a bar band sort of way, with lesser-known songs from later albums the vehicle. But the classics also fell short.
The allure of Boston lies in precision and attention to detail. That much is evident in the first album, recorded largely in band founder Tom Scholz's basement with Scholz playing virtually every instrument. The guitar effects were, at least at the time, on the edge of groundbreaking, and the vocals were every bit as important, with harmonizing a huge strength. It is amazing even today to hear the record and realize that it was done in a basement by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad who had a day job at Polaroid.
Not so on Tuesday. The guitar effects are still there, yes, but the harmonizing was almost entirely absent. Left to do it almost all on his own, lead vocalist Tommy DeCarlo proved a poor substitute for original lead singer Brad Delp, often overwhelmed by the instruments and not able to hit the highs as one would hope on "More Than A Feeling." Scholz is the sole original member of the group, but he is only an adequate musician and cannot carry his own band.
DeCarlo didn't do himself, or his bandmates, any favors by signing autographs for fans at the edge of the stage during guitar solos. It was the epitome of phoning it in, and it reached a low point during "Party" (a questionable choice for a final song from a band that has much better in its catalog), when DeCarlo was so wrapped up in signing CD's that he put the microphone away from his mouth while he worked his Sharpie, thus depriving the audience the opportunity to hear whatever interpretation he might have had for a head-bouncing kegger anthem.
There were other issues as well. Suffice to say, a band known for precision work sounded muddy. With three guitars, a bass and keyboards on hand as the need arose, there were plenty of ponies available, which only amplified the dissonance. You walked away from this, or at least I did, appreciating the divide between live performance and musical brilliance. The two can be mutually exclusive -- as good as Scholz was in his basement, he is not so good at leading a band on stage, and the band sorely wanted a leader on Tuesday. And they also should have played "Hitch A Ride."