Like an eccentric, loopy uncle freed from the shackles of his now-stifling longtime marriage (in this case, the recent Eagles), it was a jaunty and loose Joe Walsh who charmed the Houston crowd with his off-kilter stories, jokes, and musical travelogue of more than four decades of group and solo material.
And if you're a voter still looking for a candidate to believe in for 2012, Walsh (who mock ran for president back in 1980) could be your man. "I can probably win if I just don't say anything and let the other guys talk," he told cheering potential constituents. And in a Walsh White House, you can bet that there would be a Guitar Czar.
All of the rock hits were here: "Life of Illusion," "Walk Away," "Rocky Mountain Way," an energetic "Funk #49," and highlight "Life's Been Good," for which Walsh replaced the line "They write me letters/Tell me I'm great" with the more modern "They send me e-mails/Tell me I'm great."
The crack backing band, which included two drummers, three backup singers, and virtuoso bassist George Reiff, also shone on deeper cuts like the James Gang's "Rosewood Bitters," an epic and swirling "Turn to Stone," and a surprisingly strident "In the City" (which will forever remind Last Night of the end of The Warriors).
But that didn't mean Joe didn't have his softer side. Introducing the lush "Pretty Maids All in a Row," he told the crowd "This is a slow song. If you're drunk, now's a good time to pee." He also introduced a "sensitive song" that somehow went awry, the subtle and actually catchy chestnut "I Like Big Tits."
Walsh's gutsy move for a first encore was a cover of the Dylan/The Band's "I Shall Be Released," which he gave over to his backup singers, before closing with (of course) "All Night Long." He also announced that early next year will see the release of Analog Man, his first solo record in close to 20 years.
Where the "character" Joe Walsh and the real man merge may be fuzzy (he could be the best example of a sober performer you'd swear was drunk), but with a strong voice, sizzling guitar chops, and a surprising élan, Joe Walsh showed he's a rare classic rock artist who can easily adapt to group and solo shows - though as an audience member, there's more fun in the latter.
Preceding Joe on stage was Kenny Wayne Shepherd (Last Night did not catch early opener Ray Wylie Hubbard), whose hard-driving set whipped up the crowd - many probably only previously familiar with his 1997 hit "Blue on Black." Shepherd may have started as a teen blues prodigy, but he's matured into an astonishing performer, putting strength and passion into his licks to the point that you might expect semen to burst forth from the guitar's headstock during solos.
Mixing rock and blues covers (Dylan's "Everything is Broken," the Beatles' "Yer Blues," Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile [Slight Return])" along with some original material (his newest record, How I Go, came out this year), Kenny and band simply smoked. An added attraction was his rhythm section of bassist Tony Franklin (The Firm, Blue Murder) and drummer Chris Layton (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Arc Angels). Vocalist Noah Hunt also proved a natural showman with strong pipes. It certainly made Last Night want to check out more of his material.
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Personal bias: More a fan of Joe-in-bands, but appreciative of his solo career. Forced to listen to repeated playings of Got Any Gum? while working at Sound Warehouse in the late '80s as part of some record company rep payola deal.
The crowd: Forty and Fiftysomethings who were hairier, sluttier, and rowdier than the Boz Scaggs/Michael McDonald classic rock fans last week.
Overheard in the crowd: "I was in prison the first time I heard this song!" (kudos to you, Eric S.!)
Random Notebook Dump: Joe Walsh's "Guitar Face" is probably eerily similar to his "O Face."