Eagles Toyota Center February 21, 2014
The Eagles don't do too many interviews with alternative weeklies, but I've always wanted to ask Don Henley if sometimes a song is just a song. Besides one of the sharpest minds in pop music, the northeast Texas native is someone who (to put it mildly) does not suffer fools gladly, especially smirky journalists who try catch him in an erroneous lyric. Some years back a poor sap from the Cleveland Plain Dealer pointed out that wine is fermented and not distilled, and thus is not a spirit as per the "Hotel California" line. Henley shot back, "You're not the first to completely misinterpret the lyric and miss the metaphor...it's a sociopolitical statement."
That is what the kids these days call a sick burn. The band's current "History of the Eagles" tour, supporting the two-part 2013 film that stretches past four hours, seems like it would offer multiple opportunities for similar -- if more amicable -- anecdotes from Henley and his bandmates. But as the evening played out all the way to the three-hour mark and beyond, that kind of commentary would have been unnecessary. More or less, those songs still speak for themselves after all these years, and both the Eagles and the way-sold-out arena were happy to let them.
But not quite at first. The evening started out when Henley and Glenn Frey, who co-founded the Eagles in 1971 after the two had served a brief hitch in Linda Ronstadt's backup band, entered from opposite sides of the stage, bumped hands, and sat down side by side to perform the wistful waltz "Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?" Even at the very beginning of their careers, the Eagles were a little nostalgic.
The idea, Henley explained, was for the audience to get some idea of what it was like when the fledgling band used to sit on amps and road cases, rehearsing in the back of a liquor store in the San Fernando Valley for next to nothing; the owner turned out to be a pretty laid-back landlord, because he usually had a snootful of his own inventory. Walking onstage next was bald-headed Bernie Leadon, another Ronstadt alum also fresh off the Flying Burrito Brothers, for "Train Leaves Here This Morning." Then it was impossibly lanky bassist Timothy B. Schmidt in time for "Peaceful Easy Feeling," the evening's first but hardly last example of those exquisite multi-part harmonies that are nearly impossible to mistake for any other band. Ditto for Schmidt's big spotlight moment Friday, first-set closer "Take It to the Limit," a tribute to their ailing brother Randy Meisner. Beautiful.
Joe Walsh then slipped onstage for what Henley said was a new arrangement of "Witchy Woman." We would get the full Joe Walsh Experience soon enough (and how), but since technically he wasn't in an Eagle quite yet -- we were still in '72; he joined around 1975 -- he played it as low-key as Joe Walsh possibly can while turning in some pretty sharp stringwork all the same. Post-intermission, the set was dominated by Walsh, starting with a pensive "Pretty Maids All In a Row" and continuing to an "In the City" that built little by little into a bejeweled arena-rock sculpture to behold.
Eventually, yes, came the antics of "Rocky Mountain Way," "Funk #49" and "Life's Been Good," where he played his traditional pied-piper/jester role to the hilt, towing the rest of the band (especially Frey) along in his merry wake. Walsh must have a hell of a contract that allows those songs into the show where the likes of "Dirty Laundry" go unheard, but even Don Henley seemed pretty amused back there, determinedly alternating cymbals and toms as "In the City" reached its slow but steady payoff.
But rather than how "Hotel California" might be some kind of a skeleton key to the '70s, I'd just as soon ask the Eagles why the tunes where Frey -- that son of the Motor City who appeared on some early Bob Seger singles -- wound up taking the lead on some of the band's most country-sounding songs like "Tequila Sunrise," brilliant cheater's game "Lyin' Eyes" and "Already Gone." I always thought Drive-By Truckers should cover that one, but Friday it came packaged with a goofy video vignette of Frey on the open road that could have been the opening credits for some '80s sitcom. This band especially, it's nice to see a moment or two when they don't take themselves quite so seriously.
Meanwhile Henley, environmental activist from rural East Texas, could easily write a doctoral thesis on the nuances between various '60s and '70s R&B labels. (He may well have.) His songs Friday were marked by the polished Philly sounds on "One of These Nights," or pumping Stax groove of "Witchy Woman" and "The Long Run." He got a huge Walsh-like cheer for the "all the debutantes in Houston" line in that one, in case you were wondering.
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So all in all, the Eagles managed to spin quite a yarn Friday night, one well worth paying for even at their lofty ticket prices. But perhaps the most entertaining subplot of all was the drastically stepped-up Toyota Center security. Henley, God bless him, set the tone early on when he said, "Are we having a conversation? If you want to talk, go outside." But even before that, it felt like you couldn't even think about removing your phone from your pocket without a black-clad usher suddenly materializing to strongly suggest you reconsider.
As an experienced concertgoer in Houston, I cannot overstate how much I did not miss the leering LED lights of thousands of smartphones, nor how delighted I was to see the ushers' tiny penlights blinking on and off like fireflies instead.
Personal Bias: Although Jimmy Buffett might give them a run for their money some days, the Eagles are my dad's favorite band and, today, among mine from that era. But he comes by his appreciation honestly, while I came in through the back door via "The Boys of Summer" and -- a lot more, frankly -- "The Heat Is On."
The Crowd: Casual Friday...for everything but the ticket prices. Bluehairs aplenty, but not as many as you might think. A good time was had by all, especially the people across the aisle from us.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Joe Walsh was singing to me in Beaumont last week."
Random Notebook Dump: The Eagles may not do too many alt-weekly interviews, but they know we exist. The Press would have been out in the cold if someone in their camp hadn't pulled some strings to get us in. We appreciate it.
Whatever Happened to Saturday Night Train Leaves Here This Morning Peaceful Easy Feeling Witchy Woman Doolin'-Dalton Tequila Sunrise Doolin'-Dalton (reprise) Desperado Already Gone The Best of My Love Lyin' Eyes One of These Nights Take It to the Limit
Pretty Maids All In a Row I Can't Tell You Why New Kid In Town Love Will Keep Us Alive Heartache Tonight Those Shoes In the City Life's Been Good The Long Run Funk #49 Life In the Fast Lane
Hotel California Take It Easy Rocky Mountain Way Desperado
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