As they took to the stage, the applause fanned out across the theater. Someone bellowed “We love you, Christine!” as she struck some test chords on her keyboard. A few “I love you, Lindseys!” followed, but Buckingham sauntered up to his mic with this look of bemusement.
“The man with my guitar has…somehow disappeared,” he explained, offering a shrug. “So…when he shows up again, we’ll get started here I guess.”
Some more “I love yous!” chased him as he ambled off stage left. A few people called out songs they wanted to hear. McVie crossed her arms behind her back and tracked him in the darkness. A moment later, Buckingham returned with his Rick Turner acoustic firmly in hand. McVie started clapping. Leaning into his mic now, Buckingham laughed. He backed off and began picking into his solo hit “Trouble,” a suddenly felicitous opener.
In retrospect, Buckingham and McVie’s tag-team gig now rings bittersweet. We’re not likely to hear them together again anytime soon. As Fleetwood Mac launches a full scale North American tour next month, it will do so without Buckingham for the first time since the late 1990s. Although what precipitated his departure may never be clear, what’s certain is that the group fired him earlier this year. At an event back in May, Buckingham said of his predicament, “This was not something that was really my doing or my choice. I think what you would say is that there were factions within the band that had lost their perspective.” Apparently, they took exception to his desire to embark on his own brief tour this fall. Those “factions,” he remarked, demanded that the group go out first.
Now as anyone who last saw Buckingham, McVie, Stevie Nicks, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood on the band’s “On with the Show” Tour (2014-15) can relate, individual projects have long delayed any follow-up to that outing. Fans have had to be patient, but they’ve also had plenty of Mac to keep them satiated in the interim: Nicks’ “24 Karat Gold” Tour (2016-17), the current Buckingham-McVie affair (2017), and one-off appearances like the band’s headlining spot at the Classic East last summer. So could postponing another go around for a few more months have really been the breaking point? After all the other deferments, why wouldn’t the group want to wait for Buckingham? His contributions to Fleetwood Mac have arguably made it the entity most people know and love. So why shortchange the fans? Why sabotage the band’s hard-won legacy after all these years?
Ostensibly, Buckingham was pondering the same questions too. At that event in May, he told the audience, “What [being fired] did was to harm–and this is the only thing I’m really sad about, the rest of it becomes an opportunity–it harmed the 43-year legacy that we had worked so hard to build, and that legacy was really about rising above difficulties in order to fulfill one’s higher truth and one’s higher destiny.”
More recently, brimming with anger, Buckingham typed this on his Twitter feed: “I tried to get Fleetwood Mac to hold off doing dates until I’d completed my tour, but they couldn’t resist riding on my coattails.” Instead, the group replaced him with Neil Finn of Crowded House fame and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Now both musicians are exceptional, treasures in their own right, but neither can do what Buckingham has always done for Fleetwood Mac. What’s strange is the band should already have known that. When he left for a few years after their “Tango in the Night” (1987) album, they had guitarists Rick Vito and Billy Brunette take his place. Unfortunately, neither axeman resonated as well with concert goers or record buyers.
You see, Buckingham has long provided the perfect musical foil for both McVie’s dreamy, melodic ballads and Nicks’ ferocious, meandering rockers. His guitar playing is so fierce and energy so untethered, the clash between him and his two partners generates something that can’t be duplicated. When colliding with Nicks, it’s a tangible spark that might incinerate an entire room. When meeting McVie, it’s like mellowing into the arms of an easy chair. To wit, Buckingham and McVie’s performance at the Beacon Theatre was as pleasant as if wandering in one of Brian Wilson’s daydreams.
Among the highlights of the evening was their rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Wish You Were Here,” a tune that made its live debut. McVie’s simple chording was broadened by the dabs of Buckingham’s fingerpicked arpeggios, imbuing her lamented vocal with an image of the sun going down over the horizon. Elsewhere, their ability to play off one another’s instruments continued to be an understated feature of their partnership. The best example is probably heard on “Over My Head,” their first Fleetwood Mac single together, but this show had plenty of others. There was “Hold Me,” where Buckingham’s nail-flicked solo and McVie’s keyboard riff did their alchemy, “You Make Loving Fun,” where his entire song-long solo accentuated the strung-out notes of her vocal arrangement, and “Everywhere,” where his quick-step runs made the song faster and, consequently, infused her words with much more urgency.
Meanwhile, when they presented numbers like “Lay Down for Free” or “Sleeping Around the Corner” from their new album as a duo, the collaboration felt nearly perfected. The line between whose part was whose became indiscernible. They smiled. They turned to each other, nodding. Throughout the show, they hardly spoke, but Buckingham and McVie were two musicians clearly in sync–a bond, you hope, that hasn’t been severed.