Last Night: Poco and Firefall at Gulfstream Park



October 20, 2007

Gulfstream Park

Before Uncle Tupelo, before Son Volt, before Steve Earle, before the other champions of roots rock and insurgent Americana, there were bands like Buffalo Springfield, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Poco, groups that helped etch a well defined link between rock ‘n’ roll and country way back in the halcyon era of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Were it not for their efforts in fact, many of the groups that currently straddle that line, usually favoring one side of the divide over the other, would probably have a hard time finding an audience today.

Nevertheless it was a genuine relief to find Poco, with opening act Firefall (who helped continue the country-rock trajectory in the late ‘70s), able to lure a respectably sized crowd Saturday night to Gulfstream. After all, today’s rock audiences have pitifully short memories, and in South Florida’s embrace of a multi-ethnic mix, Americana often gets short thrift. Those that do get attention tend to be only bands of the hit-making variety. In fact, it bode no small hint of irony that prior to the performance, in the main courtyard of this now-lavish venue, a cover band was cranking out an Eagles standard. For knowing Poco loyalists that was a particular anathema; not only did they usurp Poco’s country rock crown, but it was Henley and company who repeatedly plundered Poco’s ranks by recruiting two of their mainstays, beginning with founding bassist Randy Meisner and then, only a couple of years later, Meisner’s replacement, Timothy B. Schmidt.

Fortunately, Poco were able to carry on quite well despite those losses and, in fact, the more significant departure of original member Richie Furay, the indelible link to their roots in Buffalo Springfield, easily among America’s finest bands of all time. Nowadays, the connection is slightly more tenuous, but Poco is, fortunately, still helmed by one of its erstwhile founders, Rusty Young, a superb multi-instrumentalist who adds the backwoods flourish of pedal steel, mandolin and guitar as well as vocals and harmonies to their still- rich, reverberating sound. Paul Cotton, who joined the group in 1970, two years into their career, is now comfortably situated in co-command, sharing the singing and songwriting duties in good stead.

So too, despite the occasional intrusion of that same overly-amplified cover band before and after the concert (they were so noisy in fact, that during Poco’s meet and greet with fans at the autograph table afterwards, Young was unable to converse, complaining he couldn’t hear due to the house band being situated directly behind him), Gulfstream proved a delightful no-hassle concert environment. Those that remember it from its inexpensive shows in years past – a free-for-all spread of lawn seating with a wealth of impeded sight lines -- will be pleasantly surprised by its civilized open-air amphitheatre that provides even those with inexpensive general admission entry an intimate perspective -- as Young later called it, a “Gulfstream living room.” Self-parking is thankfully free, and a wealth of restaurants and onsite casinos turns a pleasant evening of live music into a full night of diverse entertainment. (Gulfstream management promises an upcoming array of must-see shows, most of the classic rock variety, suggesting that with any luck this bastion of horse racing and wagering might also serve double-duty as one of South Florida’s preferred concert destinations.

That promise was evident for this particular show, thanks to a terrific double bill of two like-minded bands who, despite the dearth of original members, proved tight and durable in their current incarnations. Firefall’s opening set triggered a wealth of Top 40 minutes with a surprisingly ample stream of hits that made them radio mainstays throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, songs that sole original member and guitarist Jock Bartley immodestly remarked, were “seeped into our DNA.” Bartley, vocalist/guitarist Steven Weinmeister, drummer (and former Hollywood resident) Sandy Ficca, new guy Bob Fisher on sax and flute, and an irrepressibly animated Bil (yes, that’s only one ‘l’) Hopkins on bass and vocals did an admirable job of revisiting such half-forgotten gems as “Just Remember I Love You,” “Strange Way,” “Love That Got Away,” “It Doesn’t Matter,” “Cinderella” and “Mexico.” Despite their unlikely fusion of country, pop and jazzy nuance, they still sounded as fresh and vibrant as ever, especially in the hands of Firefall’s ever-so-capable current line-up.

After a 20 minute break, Poco took the stage inauspiciously, with Young plucking his mandolin and the rest of the band – Cotton, bassist Jack Sundrud and drummer George Lawrence, now a permanent sub for ailing original drummer George Grantham -- getting in stride with a vibrant version of “Under The Gun,” a staple from the comeback era that brought them an unexpected series of mainstream hits in the late ‘70s. With their venerable history, one that’s brought them promise, disappointment, neglect and unexpected rebirth, seeing Poco in performance remains a rarified experience. Four members strong, their vocal harmonies still sound as sweet as ever, bringing their songs a warm embrace that remains intact after all these decades. The vocals, Cotton’s in particular, still bear that rugged, assured richness, evidenced on his solo version of “Bad Weather,” one of the band’s most heart-wrenching ballads, and “Good Feeling To Know,” a rousing harmony-driven anthem from Poco’s early arsenal. The set took in a fair sampling of favorites, reaching back to their roots in the Springfield with “A Child’s Claim To Fame” and “On the Way Home” (a belated encore due to the canned music coming up prematurely after the group left the stage), through to their later resurgence with moving takes of “Magnolia” (penned by J.J. Cale), “Heart of the Night” and “Crazy Love,” the latter two being the mega-hits that made them belated top 40 mainstays. The faithful were also treated to a pair of memorable moments early on with the back-to-back replays of “Rose Of Cimarron” and “Indian Summer,” songs that practically escaped notice before the band’s resurgence, but nevertheless remain two of the more mesmerizing entries in their live set list.

Later, on the way to meeting the band for autographs, a drunken fan standing behind yours truly proceeded to badger your faithful scribe because he had seized the extra large tee she had her sights on at the merchandise table. “You’ll probably never forget this night because of me,” she clamored. Sorry sweetie -- it was the music that made it memorable. – Lee Zimmerman

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Jonathan Cunningham