Eagles at Toyota Center, 2/21/2014
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.
Review continues on the next page.