The two days of the Classic East festival in Queens, New York led up to its Fleetwood Mac climax on Sunday night (July 30) with a mix of assuredness and lingering curiosity. The five acts that had preceded them each had been missing a pivotal member — by choice, circumstance or both — but Fleetwood Mac could make the increasingly rare boast of being a classic ’70s act with their most successful lineup (all due respect, Bob Welch and Peter Green) intact.
In a way, that made the band the safest bet of the weekend. But Fleetwood Mac has so long seemed to thrive on combustibility that without any built-in member drama, it was worth wondering if they might actually come off too safe.
But there were two other acts before Classic East got to the Rumours crew on Sunday night, starting with the music world’s most overqualified crowd-warmers in Earth, Wind & Fire. The legendary Chicago collective swarmed the stage en masse in their blue-and-gold ensembles, sparking a set of virtually non-stop communal funk vibes. Though they numbered in the double digits, like the previous night’s headliners, their ranks had recently suffered a crippling blow: Founding member, co-leader and primarily writer/producer Maurice White passed in early 2016, with tribute being paid via archival video and an extended moment of onstage stillness and silence from the otherwise perpetually moving outfit.
Still, never was a cloudy day in the EWF-verse, and it certainly wasn’t Sunday, as the sun beat down on the Citi Field crowd unabated and the band happily matched its intensity. Though The Doobie Brothers’ well-received opening set on Saturday still found the crowd largely split between the sitting and the standing, Earth, Wind & Fire had nearly the whole crowd on their feet immediately — starting with “Shining Star” always helps — and gave them no real chance to return to their seats at any point after, smashing one dance-compulsory jam right into the next.
Early on, leader Phillip Bailey called out for the “true Earth, Wind & Fire” fans in the crowd, clarifying that “true” EWF fans “don’t necessarily like the songs that were top 10s on the charts… they like the songs because they were top 10s in their hearts.” That said, the band did play all seven of their Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits, and the majority of their other most crowd-pleasing oldies. The most impressive thing about EWF’s set might be how little the group’s energy sagged even during the ostensible “slow” songs — “That’s the Way of the World,” “Fantasy” and “After the Love Has Gone” (which the group even brought out stools for, like they were about to do a Boyz II Men-style a capella) had more vibrancy than most groups’ rave-ups.
The tightness of Earth, Wind & Fire’s set stood in stark contrast to their stage successors in Bay Area arena-rock paragons Journey, who were more than willing to engage in a little musical sprawl. Founding guitarist Neal Schon enjoyed several extended solo interludes (keyboardist Jonathan Cain also took one of his own), while the group’s huge pop hits were often affixed with long codas or vamping sections for Schon and/or singer Arnel Pineda. Sometimes these detours were exciting, and sometimes it felt like the band could stand to just leave well enough alone — c’mon guys, the climax to “Don’t Stop Believin'” needs no addendum. Unexpectedly, the most thrilling moment of the entire set came via a drum solo from Steve “The Magician” Smith, who lived up to his Pineda-applied nickname with all sorts of Cirque du Soleil-worthy drumstick trickery.
The crowd was also less immediately engaged with Journey than they were with Earth, Wind & Fire — perhaps a function of Journey being the middle band, or the only band on the weekend whose biggest hits mostly came in the ’80s, or the only band with an obvious replacement vocalist as the focal point. (Though non-original members carried heavy vocal burdens in the Eagles and EWF, they also had Don Henley and Phillip Bailey to lean on for familiarity.) It also didn’t help that Pineda’s vocals weren’t quite 100% on the evening — he was a convincing Steve Perry stand-in for about 98% of his notes, but his strain was obvious (if understandable) in reaching for that highest 2%, and in Journey more than most bands, that makes a difference.
Still, the group had roused the audience by set’s end — with songs as good as theirs, it’s almost always just a matter of time. Penultimate closer “Faithfully” proved a particularly stirring climax, Pineda nailing the entire vocal and maximizing the crowd’s investment with the confidence of a guy who’s been doing this for a decade (which, incredibly, he now has). The group encored with 1979 stadium-soul favorite “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” and the song’s infectious “na na na na, na na” outro was still an audible hum among attendees at the bathroom and concessions lines well after the song ended.
Then, the main event, with the house more packed than it had been all weekend: Fleetwood Mac came out stomping with the merciless bass drum and devastating harmonies of “The Chain,” and were off from there. (Well, almost: drummer Mick Fleetwood threw the band off on the following song with the opening “Dreams” fill, before correcting himself with the “You Make Loving Fun” intro.) The band made their not-f–king-around intentions clear by starting with four consecutive tracks from 1977’s diamond-and-then-some blockbuster Rumours, ultimately playing 8 of the 11 songs off the album that came to define their strengths as a band (and their personal weaknesses as bandmates).
If fans were hoping some of the behind-the-scenes drama from that album would end up spilling from the songs onto the stage, they may have come away slightly underwhelmed. Though Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham — whose volatile partnership has largely come to define the band, on and off their records — did enjoy some longing glances, and a stilted hug at the end of the Nicks-sung Tusk highlight “Sara,” the band’s dynamic was professional, respectful and non-flammable. The only real explosions to come from the stage were with the actual fireworks set off at encore’s end.
Buckingham indirectly addressed the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Fleetwood Mac intrigue during one mid-song break. “That certainly does help define the band,” he conceded. “But I think you have to look underneath that… what you see is a lot — a lot — of love.” He also maintained that while the band’s varied personalities and talents may make them an unlikely fit on paper, “It’s the synergy of what we do that makes it more than the sum of its parts — that’s always been the case.”
Undoubtedly true, though it didn’t take long on Sunday night to tell who the group’s true star remains. It’s unfair to Buckingham, the group’s brilliant sonic architect and blindlingly talented guitarist, and to wrongly oft-sidelined singer/songwriter Christine McVie, who writes choruses (“Say You Love Me,” “You Make Loving Fun”) as towering and structurally marvelous as the Empire State Building. But man, Stevie Nicks… she changes the temperature of the room whenver she’s on, even in an open-air stadium like Citi Field. Her voice, sharp and enigmatic as ever, is a national treasure, her stage presence hasn’t become one iota less captivating in over 40 years of iconicity, and her songs are just the best songs. Your heart and tear ducts fill instinctively upon hearing them, before your head can even identify the particular tune.
Whether by design or coincidence, Classic East ended up serving as something to the once-mighty power of THE BAND, as an assemblage of dynamic, versatile, occasionally overlapping talents, rather than a top-down hierarchy meant to relay a single artist’s vision. And while all six groups last weekend had multiple instrumental and/or studio prodigies contributing to their greatness, it’s Nicks — one of three singers in her band, who doesn’t play an instrument besides the tambourine — who proves by far the most irreplaceable.
That is to say: During Fleetwood Mac’s set, Buckingham played a solo version of 1987 top 5 hit “Big Love,” that included his own lightning-speed acoustic finger-picking — which only a handful of other guitarists on the planet would even have the balls to attempt, and which required a fixed close-up of his fingers on the big screen to prove to the crowd he was actually doing it — and was rightly met with an appreciative ovation for his efforts. But Stevie could’ve gotten one of those at any point in the evening, merely by lifting her arms and feigning at a twirl. That’s true stardom, and it puts Nicks in a class of one among all ’70s rock acts (inside or outside of Classic East), and explains why the current generation of modern-day rock stars from Lana Del Rey to Harry Styles continue to find her so bewitching.
Stevie may be Fleetwood Mac’s greatest weapon, but the band has never risked over-using her, and didn’t last night, as they ended with two of Buckingham’s best shredders — the self-titled album closer “I’m So Afraid” and Rumours classic-rock staple “Go Your Own Way” — then encored triumphantly with the McVie-written Buckingham duet “Don’t Stop.” Because really, Lindsey was right: It remains the unlikely combination of and chemistry between their incredible talents that makes Fleetwood Mac special. And all members still being willing to put aside decades of their storied drama in service of such fantastic music is much more important than getting to read the juicy next chapter.