Joe Walsh & Friends Present VetsAid 2019
November 10, 2019
Happy Veterans Day.
That was the last word on last night’s star-studded VetsAid 2019 concert at Toyota Center, the words delivered by the event’s ringleader, rock legend Joe Walsh. Even though the show featured a half-dozen headliners and six hours’ worth of music, it’s also the only appropriate place to begin an overview of this specific gathering. Before we delve into the crowd’s reaction to show opener Brad Paisley or Walsh’s bookending set or six decades of music sandwiched in between, from the likes of Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, ZZ Top and the Doobie Brothers, we must begin with that. Happy Veterans Day to those whose military service is being honored across the country today.
It’s 2019 and in the current American climate everything has a political element to it. We just finished a round of elections. The country is snarled in impeachment proceedings. Walsh and friends did their best to avoid those issues. There wasn’t a single reference to the current president, no onstage pleas from the bands to either support or kick to the curb those presently in power. The biggest political star of the show was Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, a veteran herself, who introduced Walsh by reminding the audience the event and Walsh’s motives weren’t about politics, but about people. Those people are veterans, many of them are in need and the night was about raising funds for and awareness of the local and national service organizations available to them.
Drew Carey, the comic and game show host, was on hand as an emcee of sorts and he introduced some area veterans between sets. They spoke overtly about these programs and how they help. But the musical acts on the bill were more subdued in delivering the message. The best instance was during Sheryl Crow’s band intros just ahead of her set finale, “I Shall Believe.” Every member of her group had a family member who served in a war, stretching back to World War II. Without making a didactic speech, Crow simply reminded the gathered that the night’s focus was on our family members, friends and neighbors who have devoted themselves to military service.
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The subplot of the show was about guitar playing. As one might expect from a concert curated by Walsh, the night featured some stellar guitar work. There were enough licks delivered last night to clear out the Tootsie Pop factory. It’s hard to choose just which of the acts outshined the others but, okay, it was either Jason Isbell or Brad Paisley. It's probably heretical to slot these country acts above the host or the Doobie Brothers or especially hometown hero Billy Gibbons; but, Paisley and Isbell were at least undaunted by sharing the stage with these guitar legends.
Paisley opened the show at 5:45 p.m., though he joked it felt like one in the afternoon to him. Only a festival setting could see a multiple Grammy winner with millions of sold records starting things off before dinnertime. But Paisley set the tone with ten hits from 20 years’ work, selections like “Ticks” and “Then.” He added a little flair to some, intoning Prince for a “Purple Rain” interspersion, which blended into Alabama’s “Mountain Music,” which led into “Old Alabama.” He said some veterans had told him how they played “Mud on the Tires” in their Humvees on their own tours and brought Walsh out for the set-closer, "Alcohol." As for that guit’ playin’, Paisley’s highlight reel featured a furious solo on “Perfect Storm,” one which had him posturing like Slash (slightly different hat on head) atop a set of speakers near the front row of seats.
Sheryl Crow batted second in the lineup and she mentioned the recent Houston Astros World Series loss and told the crowd she’s a ‘Stros fan and that she too was still trying to get past the unfortunate end to the season. The nine-time Grammy winner was introduced by Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, who invited everyone out to today’s Veterans Day Parade festivities. Then Crow and company launched into “If It Makes You Happy,” one of the biggest hits of her 30-year solo career. She followed that with her first big hit, the anthem for day drinkers everywhere, “All I Wanna Do.” Crow also is no slouch on guitar, but her six-song set showcased her versatility. She brought Jason Isbell on stage for a raucous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken” and she played harmonica on that tune. For “Still the Good Old Days,” she let Walsh handle lead guitar while she took a turn on bass. On the gospel-tinged “I Shall Believe,” she was featured on keys. Her set was much too brief, but, as Turner said in his intro and as she suggested with her comments on the city’s baseball team, Crow is no stranger to Houston. When she returns, I’ll stand in line for a ticket to her full set.
Isbell returned to the stage to lead his band, The 400 Unit, through seven songs. He admitted his songs can be sobering and some of them spoke more about veterans and their challenges than any of the planned speeches on the night. He introduced “Tour of Duty” by telling the crowd he’d written it after trading tales with a military friend. The crowd was vocal in its approval of the song’s line “I’m home and I ain’t leaving here again.” That one was followed by “Decoration Day,” a tune from Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers days, which addresses the futility of feuding. The guitar work he did on those back-to-back selections was impassioned. Lyrics are strong in Isbell’s repertoire, but his instrument expressed a whole range of unspeakable emotions on those offerings last night. He told the crowd they’d close with something not so serious and covered Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.”
Midway through his set (after taking his shot at their famous “a-how-how-how”), Walsh said, “Man, ZZ Top is so cool. I wish I could grow a beard.” Of course, there’s more to cool than face fuzz and That Little Ol’ Band From Texas brought the hometown pride into the show while ushering in the classic rock half of the night. The fans got on their feet for opener “Got Me Under Pressure” and remained there through an extended jam version of “Tush,” which ended the set. In between, they got favorites like “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs,” which also inspired some crowd sing-alongs. At this point in the night – nearly five hours in and several drinks later for many in the crowd – the audience singing was probably the least musical thing heard all night. At least folks were having a good time.
The Doobie Brothers took things way back to the 1970s. Every song in the set was from before the band’s mainstream pop hits of the 1980s and that was just fine with the audience, which sang heartily to tunes like “China Grove” and “Listen to the Music.” The band had a bit of a hiccup on “Black Water,” with a guitar cable loosened and havoc thereby wreaked on the 45-year old favorite. The band took a mulligan and the crowd jumped in for call and response on those “take you by the hand, pretty mama” lines, doing a nifty vocal volley with the band’s mainstays, Tom Johnston, Patrick Simmons and John McFee.
Then, the man of the hour was up and Walsh bandied between reiterating the goal of the night and playing rock star. He was full of quips and stories, like the one about he and Carey crashing a karaoke bar. He sang “Life’s Been Good” since it was on the playlist and the karaoke deejay told Walsh he had overreached.
“No one should sing that song but Joe Walsh,” was the punch line.
Amidst all Walsh’s onstage goofiness was a bunch of killer guitar playing, most notably during a trippy version of “Rocky Mountain Way” and on “Life’s Been Good,” which also featured a video reel chronicling Walsh’s years in music going back to his James Gang days. There was a nod to his Eagles gig with “Life in the Fast Lane” near the set’s end and the entire night ended with an all-star rendition of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” which followed Walsh’s reminder to veterans in the audience and elsewhere that there are people waiting to help if help is needed. Nothing political about reaching out to make sure our neighbors are okay.
Personal Bias: I got to hear two of my life anthems performed live on the same night. #alliwannadoishavesomefun #lifesbeengoodtomesofar
The Crowd: Didn’t pack the auditorium, I’m sorry to report. Nearly the entire upper tier of Toyota was vacant. Those who showed were there at least as much to recognize the veterans (including themselves) as to hear the music.
Random Notebook Dump: Screens on each end of the stage flashed veterans’ service organization banners all night. There were far too many to list here, but on Veterans Day, and in the spirit of the event, it only seems right to note a few, most notably VetsAid, Headstrong, U.S. Vets Houston and NAVSO.
Brad Paisley Set List
Last Time for Everything
Mud on the Tires
Sheryl Crow Set List
If It Makes You Happy
All I Wanna Do
Everything is Broken (Bob Dylan cover with Jason Isbell)
Still the Good Old Days
Everyday is a Winding Road
I Shall Believe
Jason Isbell Set List
Flying Over Water
Tour of Duty
Last of My Kind
Oh Well (Fleetwood Mac cover)
ZZ Top Set List
Got Me Under Pressure
Gimme All Your Lovin’
Sharp Dressed Man
Doobie Brothers Set List
Rockin’ Down the Highway
Jesus is Just Alright
Long Train Runnin’
Listen to the Music
Joe Walsh Set List
In the City
Turn to Stone
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Life’s Been Good
Rocky Mountain Way
Life in the Fast Lane
Lean on Me (Bill Withers cover with all show participants)