There’s No Mystery to the Eagles’ Half-Century of Success

The Eagles 2020
The Eagles 2020 Photo by Robyn Tuazon
The Eagles
Toyota Center
March 6, 2020

When does a concert review require a spoiler alert? Well, let’s say a band’s engagement in your city is a multi-night affair. That might be the time, if you’ve covered the opening night, to alert those who plan to attend but weren’t on hand for the kickoff to avert thine eyes. It’s a rare necessity in Houston, where bands book a drive-by to Austin or New Orleans, if they visit us at all. But in the case of the Eagles, the classic rock powerhouse celebrating one of rock and roll’s all-time classic albums, Houston’s Toyota Center nabbed the tour for two consecutive nights. So, if you’re planning on seeing tonight’s show, here it is, your stop-reading-now-or ruin-the-mystery spoiler alert. Going any further would be like Googling the big reveal at the end of that (steely) Knives Out movie before watching the flick.

Reading further could ruin a few nice surprises, but there’s no true mystery to the band’s success. The reason for the Eagles’ accomplished 49 years in music is the songwriting. The playing is stellar of course and those  voices, especially when harmonizing, are still impeccable; but the songs were constructed with the meticulous  thoughtfulness of a thrilling whodunnit. The suspects are among rock’s best tunesmiths, founding band members Don Henley, Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and the late Glenn Frey. Eagles add-ons Joe Walsh and Don Felder, and songwriters like Jackson Browne, Jack Tempchin and J.D. Souther added to the catalog.

Even if you’re not a die-hard fan, you know these songs. This tour, for example, is more than just a greatest hits package. It’s showcasing Hotel California, the band’s most important album, one of the best-selling of all time, ranked No. 37 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums" list, written and released in America’s bicentennial year. The show was split between the current iteration of the band performing Hotel California in its entirety and following those songs with the standard concert fare of hits from various albums.

click to enlarge L-R: Henley, Deacon Frey and Walsh - PHOTO BY ROBYN TUAZON
L-R: Henley, Deacon Frey and Walsh
Photo by Robyn Tuazon

The show opened with Hotel California’s “Nightman” setting the album on a turntable. It crackled and sprung the show to life with one of rock’s signature songs. The band — clad in black and white, as if the affair was a formal one — played the album in sequence from beginning to end. Following the title track, which is beloved by karaoke singers and air guitarists everywhere, were “New Kid in Town” and “Life in the Fast Lane.” The first song was the Record of the Year at the 1977 Grammy Awards. It went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. “New Kid in Town” was also a Grammy winner and No. 1 Billboard topper. “Life in the Fast Lane” nearly cracked Billboard’s Top 10, peaking at 11.

For some perspective, consider that artists can forge entire careers from fewer than three Top 10 hits. When those three songs were done, the band played 29 more, classic rock favorites like “Desperado,” “Take It Easy,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “Heartache Tonight,” over more than three hours onstage. A set list replete with time-honored classics might give the impression there was a massive output of Eagles material over 49 years, but there are just seven Eagles studio albums and six of them were released in a ten-year span. Tallying the Billboard rankings and collected music awards of those songs isn’t necessary. You get the plot. There’s nothing cryptic about it. The weapon in this whodunnit is the killer songwriting. These guys knew how to write timeless songs and we still love them.

But wait – there’s a plot twist! Last night’s show suggested maybe the true hero in the Eagles’ ongoing, amazing success is the band’s adeptness at adding the perfect talent to its ranks. Back in the 1970s, when original members were exiting, the group added guitar gurus Joe Walsh and Don Felder and bassist Timothy B. Schmit. They all made key songwriting and performance contributions to the Eagles’ Rock Hall of Fame history. Of these usual suspects, Henley is still front and center, even from behind the drum kit, ruggedly handsome as ever and still able to hit every note on songs like “One of These Nights,” “Witchy Woman,” “The Boys of Summer,” and “The Best of My Love,” which he dedicated last night to the late American poet and University of Houston instructor Tony Hoagland.

click to enlarge Walsh and Smith can play that rock and roll for ya - PHOTO BY ROBYN TUAZON
Walsh and Smith can play that rock and roll for ya
Photo by Robyn Tuazon

Walsh is still there too, whipping up a six-string frenzy with fellow guitarist Steuart Smith, who’s been wowing Eagles fans for nearly 20 years now. Schmit, the soft-spoken, long-haired hippie holdover of the band, was terrific on lead vocals for “I Can’t Tell You Why” last night.

The current touring group proves the band hasn’t lost its knack for gathering talent which fits seamlessly. Country music icon Vince Gill sang “New Kid in Town,” the second song of the night, and won over the capacity crowd at Toyota Center from that moment on. His gentle take on the Glenn Frey classic was buoyed by Henley’s harmonies and recalled the spirit of the founding members performing the classic together. Gill is another one of those good decisions, a perfect fit and an inspired choice to handle songs like “Tequila Sunrise,” “Heartache Tonight” and “Take It to the Limit.” That one came 13 songs into the set and was the first big audience sing-along. The crowd sang so loudly they nearly drowned the “new kid” out.

Speaking of kids, Frey’s son, Deacon, is a showcased artist on this tour and he too has been receiving deserved accolades on the run. Houston embraced him last night and he humbly accepted the warm reception and totally made his papa proud, to paraphrase Henley’s introduction of the Eagles’ true progeny. Deacon’s turn on “Already Gone” was fun but his featured vocals on “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” which closed with a family photo of father and son, was a show highlight.

There were too many highlights to recount them all, but some unforgettable moments for Houstonians included a full orchestra of Houston musicians appearing for “Wasted Time” and a 22-member University of Houston  choir backing the band on “The Last Resort,” which must be one of rock’s strongest album closers.

click to enlarge Vince Gill is an inspired addition to the band - PHOTO BY ROBYN TUAZON
Vince Gill is an inspired addition to the band
Photo by Robyn Tuazon

The band let the music do its talking for the most part. After playing Hotel California in its entirety, they took a 15-minute break but Henley promised they’d return to “play everything we know” and “wear your asses out.” They returned, dressed casually for the long run to come, and Henley said the show and the latest additions to the band were intended to honor Frey’s legacy as band founder. He also touched on the current state of the world, something those expertly written songs do so well, even 40 years on.

“Our intention this evening is to give you a break from the hideous 24/7 news cycle, ‘cause ain’t none of it good,” said the man who wrote (but last night did not perform) “Dirty Laundry.”

“So just sit back and forget about it,” he continued. “It’ll all be there in the morning when you get up.”

Personal Bias: Joe Freakin’ Walsh. The guitar coda to "Hotel California" is the masterstroke which makes the song a masterpiece. It’s emphatic and essential, like that passage about plots moving deathward in Don DeLillo’s White Noise or the funky angles in Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. This old guitarist is a classic rock gem and seeing him twice within a year’s time has been a show-going highlight. When he was here in November for his VetsAid concert, he shared the stage with other legendary musicians (ZZ Top, Sheryl Crow, Brad Paisley to name a few) just as he did last night; but, the facial and guitar histrionics, big rock hits like “Life’s Been Good” and “Rocky Mountain Way,” his goofy, fun-loving persona, frequently make him the center of attention. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Sendejas has a huge crush on him. “Joe Walsh is a badass.” “I love Joe Walsh.” These are direct quotes!

But seriously, if you don’t enjoy watching Joe Walsh play, I don’t know what to tell you, man. Maybe you’re not a rock and roll fan.

click to enlarge Next year, the band will celebrate its 50th anniversary - PHOTO BY ROBYN TUAZON
Next year, the band will celebrate its 50th anniversary
Photo by Robyn Tuazon

The Crowd: They sang loudly, clapped and cheered voraciously and gave the Eagles the best of their love.

Random Notebook Dump: Let's go back and do it all over again tonight.

Hotel California Set List
Hotel California
New Kid in Town
Life in the Fast Lane
Wasted Time
Wasted Time (Reprise)
Victim of Love
Pretty Maids All in a Row
Try and Love Again
The Last Resort

Greatest Hits Set List
Seven Bridges Road
Take It Easy
One of These Nights
Take It to the Limit
Tequila Sunrise
Witchy Woman
In the City
I Can’t Tell You Why
Lyin’ Eyes
The Best of My Love
Peaceful Easy Feeling
Love Will Keep Us Alive
Walk Away
Those Shoes
Life’s Been Good
The Boys of Summer
Funk #49
Already Gone
Heartache Tonight
Rocky Mountain Way
The Long Run
Hotel California (Reprise)
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.