Legends of Country Rock – Featuring Pure Prairie League, Richie Furay & Firefall
Mayo PAC – Morristown, NJ – 11/18/2023
Review & Photos – Rebecca Wolf
In the past several years I’ve attended a number of performances of musicians who were at the top of their careers in the 1970s. I frequently find myself shocked that it’s actually been close to a half-century since the heyday of these artists and amazed that this music of my youth remains as beloved and relevant to me as it was almost five decades ago. Before each of these performances I wonder about the crowds they’ll draw and if others still feel as much of a connection to the artists and their music as I do. Some extraordinarily popular, hit-making artists of the 1970s, continue to sell out stadiums and arenas with every performance, like The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Queen. While most musical groups from the 1970s do not have the massive draw of those iconic groups, in recent years there’s been a significant resurgence of interest in attending performances of a range of popular 70s musicians, from classic rock, to folk rock, to pop, to country rock….anything that connects our generation to our yesteryears.
On November 18th, the Legends of County Rock featuring Pure Prairie League, Richie Furay and Firefall, gave the packed audience at Mayo PAC, an opportunity to be immersed in the musical memories and feelings of some phenomenally beloved country rock hits. If there were any questions in my mind as to whether there was still an avid fanbase for these three artists, those were quickly put to rest by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd.
It’s expected that the passage of time brings with it significant changes in a band’s line-up. After almost 50 years it’s not even shocking when there’s only one original member. That’s the current situation with Pure Prairie League, who continues with founding member, John David Call, on steel guitar, and Firefall, with original member, Jock Bartley, on guitar and vocals. While these bands each have only one representative from the original band, they’ve surrounded themselves with musicians and vocalists who’ve been able to incredibly recreate the sound, energy and spirit of the original music.
In 2012, Pure Prairie League added Scott Thompson on drums, percussion and vocals, followed in 2018 by Randy Harper on keyboards, guitar and vocals. Latest to join the band in 2021 were Jared Camic on bass and vocals and Jeff Zona on guitar and vocals. While these five musicians are relatively new to working as a group, they performed the music of Pure Prairie League with the passion and skill of those who’ve been carrying the music in their hearts for decades. Not only are these musicians skilled instrumentalists but dynamic vocalists.
Fifty-one years since the release of Pure Prairie League’s self-titled debut album, these members are now recording a new album. Performing “Modern Problem,” from the new release, with Zona on lead vocals, the extended jams on the guitar and bass added a smooth jazzy vibe to the song’s country rock sound. Zona additionally sang lead on “Angel #9,” from the band’s debut album, as well as the band’s hit “Let Me Love You Tonight,” from 1976’s Firin’ Up. This beloved classic had audience members swaying in their seats with smiles on their faces, and faraway glimpses of days gone by in their eyes. While Zona sang lead on a number of songs, each new musician had the opportunity to showcase his powerfully melodic vocal abilities during the 11-song set.
Thompson sang lead on “Early Morning Riser,” from the band’s debut, as well as on “Two Lane Highway,” the title song from their 1975 album, which was dedicated to all first responders in the crowd. The warm country charm of Thompson’s voice, mixed with the harmonies of Zona, Camic and Harper produced a beautifully layered sound. Harper’s passion for the music was evident in the expressions on his face, the power in his voice, and his energy behind the keyboards, as he transitioned to the acoustic guitar and returned to the keys. Additional songs in the set included “Heart of Her Own,” “Harvest,” and “Woman.” As the set wound down the crowd eagerly awaited the band’s beloved hit. “If we don’t do this song we’ll be run out of town,” Harper said to the cheers of the eager crowd, as Zona began to sing “Amie,” and the audience enthusiastically joined in.
Pure Prairie League departed the stage, making way for the arrival of legendary musician, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, Richie Furay. Furay is a founding member of Buffalo Springfield and Poco, as well as the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Following his departure from these musical groups Furay released several solo albums and became a religious leader, writing Christian rock music. His passion for music never allowed him to drift too far from the industry, instead keeping his foot squarely in the door through his collaborations with musicians, as well as reuniting and performing with former band members. In 2022, Furay released his latest album In The Country, highlighting his love of country music.
Performing as part of the Legends of Country Rock Tour, Richie Furay’s Acoustic Trio includes Jesse Lynch on vocals and Dan Skarda on vocals and acoustic guitar. At 79 years old, Furay’s youthful spirit, appearance and vocal abilities belie his age. “I’m coming back to NJ in the spring to perform at the South Orange Performing Arts Center for my 80th Birthday,” announced Furay, to the applause of the crowd. “Come and join me!” Furay’s set included a range of songs spanning his musical career, including numbers from Buffalo Springfield, Poco and his solo career. “We used to call these things worship songs,” Furay shared with the crowd, speaking of his 1997 album In My Father’s House. “We had some good down home worship music. This is one of the first worship songs we wrote,” Furay said with a look of pride, as the trio began playing the folksy, upbeat, spiritual “Wake Up My Soul.” “A few years ago I recorded a record down in Nashville. There was a guy who kept coming into the studio saying he wanted to play…it was Keb Mo. So, the next song on the album featured Ken Mo,” Fury said with delight, as the trio performed the foot tapping, joyful, country rock “Some Day,” from 2015’s Hand In Hand. Throughout the set, Furay’s voice was beautifully warm, rich and smooth, accompanied by the delicate harmonies of Lynch and Skarda. With Furay’s history of forming rock groups, it’s not surprising he congregated a full band onstage at Mayo PAC, welcoming the members of Firefall for an upbeat, country rock jam. This was the perfect way to smoothly transition from Furay’s acoustic guitar session to Firefall’s energetic, charismatic country/pop rock performance.
Furay and his trio exited the stage to an abundance of applause, as the show was turned over to Firefall’s last original member, Jock Bartley, on guitar and vocals, and the four additional band members who comprise the current lineup. While Firefall has endured a number of musician changes in the past half-century, drummer Sandy Ficca has been with the band since 1984 and both Steve Weinmeister on guitar and vocals and Jim Waddell on keyboards, sax, and flute initially joined Firefall 30 years ago. Waddell is now on his 5th stint with the band, since David Muse’s passing in 2022, and Weinmeister returned in 2022 after a 21-year stretch as a band member. The longtime dedication these musicians have had to each other and to the music of Firefall, and the significant contributions made by the many artists who’ve played with the band, have kept the Firefall alive for the past half-century.
Joining Firefall for the first time in 2022, replacing original bassist Mark Andes, is John Bisaha. Bisaha is not only a skilled bass player but a phenomenal vocalist with an extensive history in the music industry, who is also currently a member of The Babys. This new lineup beautifully meshes Weinmeister’s, Bartley’s and Bisaha’s voices, creating the dynamic vocal harmonies that are a signature of Firefall’s classic sound. It’s this smooth, harmonic vibe that Firewall brought forth when recording their newest album, Friends & Family, released in September 2023 and dedicated to David Muse, Firefall’s longtime keyboard and woodwind player, who passed way in 2022. Friends and Family features classic numbers of many 1970s bands who Firefall toured with and have been influenced by, including the Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Loggins and Messina, The Band and more.
The set opened with “Livin’ Ain’t Livin’” from the band’s debut album, with rhythmic drum beats, dynamic guitar riffs, Waddell’s impressive sax solo, Weinmeister’s melodic lead vocals, and layers of vocal harmonies that immediately engaged the crowd. The already enthused fans were completely enraptured as Firefall performed their single “Just Remember I Love You,” from 1977’s Luna Sea, which reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Weinmeister’s tender, heartfelt vocals, combined with Bartley’s rich voice and Bisaha’s high-pitched harmonies created a multi-textured and layered sound. Not only did Bisaha hit the high notes, but singing lead on “So Long,” from Luna Sea, and “Long Train Ruinnin’” from Friends & Family, Bisaha demonstrated his passionate, powerful rock vocals, matching his rockstar energy and spirit.
Waddell’s skills on flute were showcased during several numbers in the set, including “Cinderella,” with Bartley on lead vocals, as well as on Firefall’s biggest hit, the upbeat, love-infused “You Are the Woman,” that had hundreds in the crowd joyfully singing along with Weinmeister. Waddell and his flute were again highlighted during the hauntingly beautiful opening of “Strange Way,” off 1978’s Elan, which reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Additional songs in the set included “Goodbye, I Love You,” also from Elan, as well as a cover of Manassas’ “It Doesn’t Matter,” both with Weinmeister and Bartley singing lead. Ending the set with the spirited flare of “Mexico,” Bartley and Bisaha jammed on their guitars, accompanying Weinmeister’s animated vocals. Throughout the performance, whether Firefall’s three vocalists sang in unison or in three-part harmonies, the sound was always warm, rich and engaging….a highlight of Firefall’s music.
While it’s been close to a half-century since the heyday of these musical artists, the audience at the Legends of Country Rock performance were a reminder that there are many of us who revel in the opportunity to be immersed in the memories and feelings that this beloved music brings. I’m already looking forward to the next opportunity to be connected to those yesteryears.