It's awfully hard to argue against the combined might of Lester Bangs, Tom Waits and the other respected writers and musicians whose eloquent disses of the Eagles were catalogued in this week's WW. So to rise to the band's defense is a task more daunting than the last time on this blog that I had to argue for a classic rocker against a screed in WW's pages.
And the thing is, I think they suck, too—honest! But, I'm afraid, I also find them kind of awesome. It may be objectionable and gauche to assert it, but in terms of sustained success with hit singles that defined the decade they ruled, the Eagles are the closest thing the '70s had to the Beatles. I'm not comparing the quality of their respective outputs; that would be obscene. But the truth is that they ruled the airwaves, over and over, for the entire decade, and made it look easy.
In general, they did the same at the Moda Center on Wednesday night: made it look easy. Almost too easy. Of course, their early signature song trumpeted "taking it easy" as a philosophy. To help them practice that philosophy onstage, the aging original band members made sure to augment themselves with a full complement of hired guns: a drummer-percussionist to alternately bolster and relieve Don Henley; two keyboardists, one on a grand piano; and a stand-in for dismissed longtime guitarist Don Felder, reproducing his signature guitar parts note-for-note and nuance-for-nuance.
The show was billed as The History of the Eagles Tour, named after the exhaustive three-hour documentary on the band that premiered on cable last year. Among other things, the film tells the sordid story of how they fired Felder following the first wave of their mid-'90s reunion—once they'd used him to help establish its legitimacy. As though in compensation for his absence, on this "History" tour they've invited original guitarist Bernie Leadon back into the fold to play on the material from his time with the band. But the enjoyment of watching Leadon play lead on (heh) songs he created the familiar parts to—for instance, when taking the solo on "Take It Easy"—just pointed up the hollowness of seeing hired gun Stuart Smith doing guitaroke with Felder's parts. It makes one wish that notoriously dyspeptic leaders Glenn Frey and Henley would, in the words of their churlish 1994 comeback hit, "Get Over It" and let Felder back in the band.
Frey and Henley started the evening in acoustic duo form, sitting and strumming "Saturday Night," a relative obscurity from the band's second album, and then, joined by Leadon, blew this reviewer's mind by pulling out an obscure tune that the latter co-wrote with ex-Byrd Gene Clark in the late '60s, "Train Leaves Here This Morning," which I had forgotten the Eagles first covered on their debut album. As Leadon played alongside Gram Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers before joining the nascent Eagles, and bassist Timothy B. Schmidt, who was introduced next, started his career with Poco, it was legitimate for Frey to present this opening set as a history of not only the Eagles, but the birth of the entire Southern California country-rock scene.
With Schmidt in place, the band proceeded to play the first hit of the night, "Peaceful Easy Feeling." And as lovely a song as it is, as I focused on the lyrics, dormant Eagles-hate started to rear its head. The band's songs are notorious for their sexism, and I started to realize that the object of the singer's affection in this seemingly tender classic is probably just a prospective one-night-stand. Following that tune with "Witchy Woman" didn't help their case—and Henley's ridiculous, grating falsetto "witch noises" throughout the song didn't help anybody whatsoever.
At that point, the band got off their asses and were joined by the aforementioned backing musicians—not to mention one Joe Walsh—as Henley took over the narration to discuss the band's second album, the concept piece Desperado, from which they proceeded to perform some deep cuts, including, interestingly, the title song only in its unfamiliar reprise version (they'd reserve the song proper for the last slot of the night). Three of the four additional players were singers, too, which meant that there were up to eight voices joined in harmony throughout the night, and as first heard on Desperado's "Doolin' Dalton," the sound was almost impossibly lush.
At that point, it was all aboard the hit train, as "Tequila Sunrise," "Already Gone" (accompanied by an incredibly brain-dead music video projected behind the band depicting Frey driving goofily cross-country), "Best of My Love," "Lyin' Eyes" (which Frey dedicated "to my first wife, 'Plaintiff,'" to deserved laughter), "One of These Nights" and "Take It to the Limit" were dispatched in efficient fashion leading up to the intermission.
The second set dismissed any pretense of a history lesson or nods to chronology (as well as the services of Bernie Leadon), commencing with Schmidt's showcase, the Eagles' 1979 Al Green move "I Can't Tell You Why," followed by the Hotel California album's great hit, "New Kid in Town". After that, they aired out a song from reunion album Hell Freezes Over, "Love Will Keep Us Alive." The applause that followed that song was notable in that it distinctly emerged most loudly from higher up in the auditorium, with a quieter reaction from those on the floor. My theory is that the band's older followers, generally more well-to-do, took most of the nearly-$200 lower-level tickets, while younger fans (relatively speaking)—who would have been more inclined to include the new tunes on that 1994 album as Eagles canon—filled up the cheap seats.
That canon was augmented with a surprising number of Joe Walsh solo hits sprinkled throughout the night, demonstrating how reliant the overly-polished band, with their staid arrangements and placid harmonies, is on guitar hero Walsh to liven things up. He's the only virtuosic musician in the band—not to mention one of the rock-era guitarists with his own unmistakable tone—and the only true-believin' rock'n'roller. His function in the band is analogous to how Neil Young roughed up Crosby, Stills and Nash. In any event, Walsh pulled off the still-hilarious novelty hit "Life's Been Good" with goofy, are-you-sure-he's-still-sober panache, and delivered blistering, trademarked talkbox-augmented leads on his James Gang-era rocker "Funk #49" and signature hit "Rocky Mountain Way," even if the latter was marred by another boneheaded video, this one depicting Walsh soaring amidst the Rockies in a Superman costume. He also turned in a forceful version of his tune from The Warriors' soundtrack, "In the City", which the Eagles adopted for their The Long Run album.
The main set ended with "Life in the Fast Lane," a reminder of how the band's hits, obnoxious or not, served as front-line reportage of their era's dissolute, sex-and-drug-addled culture—albeit with a healthy dose of that aforementioned misogyny, with another SoCal succubus lurking around every corner. But cultural historians almost have to thank them for their tin-eared representation of Me-Decade masculinity, making for as fascinating an original-source document of '70s sexism as any given issue of Playboy or, say, the film Carnal Knowledge.
Then came "Hotel California" as a free-standing encore—again making one wish Don Felder was playing the parts he wrote—followed by Leadon rejoining the band for "Take it Easy," Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way", and, finally, "Desperado." The 31-song set stretched over three hours, so however much the band dares charge for tickets, they certainly didn't skimp on delivering the goods. Their voices were all in remarkable shape, tackling songs in their original keys and not rounding off their peaks or valleys like many of their contemporaries do these days, but delivering them with every keening melisma intact.
Sure, in presiding over the '70s hit parade, they oversaw the era of rock's calcification. But all the way back in 1979—right before their breakup—they answered the critics and detractors in the lyrics to "The Long Run." It's fair to say that the years since have proven their point. In consistency of output and quality of performance—and in popularity, given the evening's just-about-sold-out Moda Center—much like one of their most famous haters, the Eagles abide.