In Roman mythology, Venus was the goddess of love, and even today continues to be an inspiration for artists and thinkers alike. So how appropriate was it to see the luminous planet gently rising over the Mountain Winery amphitheater on a cool summer evening that was to feature two artists who, for nearly 50 years have celebrated and commemorated love, both lost and found?
Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock, better known as the group Air Supply, first met during a 1975 production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Australia. Russell, originally from England, and Hitchcock, an Australian native, decided to forge a musical partnership which, as you are probably aware, has resulted in a boatload of easy-on-the-ear hits including “Lost in Love,” “All Out Of Love,” “Every Woman in the World” and many others. Their roles were defined early; Russell, the towering left-handed guitarist would do most of the writing and sing occasionally, while Hitchcock, blessed with an angelic, soaring tenor voice, would carry the bulk of the lead vocals. Thus was born one of rock music’s most potent and prolific duos, comfortably resting in the same pantheon with Simon and Garfunkel, The Carpenters, Daryl Hall and John Oates, and Tears for Fears, among others.
Nestled into the winding hills of the Santa Clara Valley, Saratoga’s beautiful Mountain Winery boasts a magical air. The “vineyard in the sky” as it has been called came to be in 1905 as La Cresta, where esteemed vintner Paul Masson turned out his acclaimed sparkling wines. The 2500-seat amphitheater was constructed in 1958, its stage placed against the dramatic backdrop of a 12th-century Spanish Portal (which Masson acquired from the rubble of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in San Jose after the 1906 earthquake). Over the years, the famed summer concert series has hosted many major musical acts, and Air Supply seemed happy to be back.
As the opening strains of 1981’s top five hit, “Sweet Dreams” began to swirl, it was immediately obvious that, like fine wine, Air Supply has not just aged well but has also ascended and matured to a new level of performance that is both impressive and age-defying.
Bathed in shafts of violet light, (backed by a wonderfully diverse band consisting of Aaron McLain on guitar, Mirko Tessandori on keyboards, Pavel Valdman on drums, and Doug Gild on bass) it was immediately established that this was not just simply a concert, but rather also a loosely (and skillfully) crafted three-act theatrical performance designed, as all good musicals are, to include a series of dramatic arcs; those emotional peaks and valleys that allow the audience to viscerally experience the music rather than just passively sit there and listen.
The first “act” as it were, of course, featured many hits including “Even the Nights Are Better,” “Every Woman in the World” and “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You”). Act two showcased Russell reciting a piece of his own beautiful poetry as part of a short solo set, (which served to give Hitchcock a bit of a vocal break) which then sets up act three, an unleashing of the biggest anthems including “The One That You Love,” “Lost in love,” “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and “All out of Love” (not to mention a splendid version of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” which Hitchcock sang into the stratosphere).
Throughout the entire show, both Russell and Hitchcock, in addition to sharing intimate, reflective, and humorous anecdotes about their history, traverse the stage almost nonstop, crisscrossing countless times while also sharing a pair of center-stage stools for a quieter part of the set. The band is given full rein to rock, shred and deliver their own little consummate solos. Yes, the show is comprised of many love ballads, but the overall tone is very much rock’n roll.
Russell, ever the charming (and tireless) unofficial emcee is a wandering minstrel with his guitar (at one point playing some strikingly innovative percussive runs on a 12-string acoustic.) Hitchcock, the charismatic crooner, interprets rather than simply recites the hits that made the group famous, thus adding a layer of dimension rarely demonstrated by bands performing songs they have played thousands of times. Much the way the most classic crooners from Sinatra to Bennett would alter phrasings, timings, and other nuances, Hitchcock brought all new depth to Air Supply’s classic repertoire by singing in the moment, finding new touches within the ever-present lush harmonies and sweeping melodies.
A little Broadway, a little tin pan alley, a bit of British Music Hall, the highly theatrical show teases, and seduces the audience, who are a broad, diverse mix of both age and ethnicity. Twentysomethings sway in time to music that’s fairly new to them, alongside those who grew up with Air Supply. When Russell asks the crowd each night who’s seen the band before, he playfully admonishes the first-timers. “What took you so long?”
These are choruses, melodies, and lyrics that are indelibly etched into our hearts and minds; a cultural fabric that’s familiar but also meaningful. The songs still sound new and fresh because of the timeless theme; love. Their simplicity, elegance, and earnestness resonate powerfully today perhaps because they fly in the face of what has become a coarse, detached, and unforgiving society.
Maybe there’s never been a better time for unabashed sentimentality.
Similarly successful bands in the day, from Styx to Foreigner to Journey, all had one or perhaps two ballads that became hits. But for Air Supply it was their stock in trade. Graham Russell’s ability to craft timeless odes to love even as tastes and genres shape-shifted over the decades is unchallengeable. As a band, Air Supply has never abandoned what made them successful in the first place. They emerge today after almost 50 years in the business with a highly polished patina of professionalism rarely seen in many legacy acts today.
All the more reason to catch this show.
Smartphone flashlights have replaced cigarette lighters when it comes to acknowledging the encores, all arms in the crowd gently swaying to melodies so familiar that they become inseparable from the fabric of one’s life. The power of the music is obvious, but it’s the power of this performance that elevates even the most recognizable melodies to new heights.
Rare is the concert that inspires you to not just revel in the songs but also reflect on your own life; the ups and downs, the in-betweens and the music that always made it all better. At this stage of the game, Air Supply is delivering one of the most emotionally satisfying and entertaining shows I’ve seen in years. Just be prepared. The music sneaks up on you. It taps you on the shoulder. It whispers in your ear. It makes you think about life and, of course, how love has affected your life.
By the end of the show, Venus had ducked behind the mountains, replaced by another iconic symbol of love, a crescent moon that was balanced perfectly over Air Supply. On this night it seemed, even the universe understood.