Monday, June 2, 2008

The Eagles Show They Still Have It

If you were designing a great rock show, I doubt it would go like this: Get four guys who are old enough to cash in their 401(k) accounts. Dress them in black business suits with black ties. Back them with nine more musicians in black suits, all of whom are old enough to clearly remember Woodstock (and, in most cases, Elvis performing on Ed Sullivan’s show). And tell them to stand in place most of the night while they play. Such a scenario sounds more like a recital at Carnegie Hall than a rock concert at Madison Square Garden.

And yet, that exact set of circumstances resulted in a great rock concert last Friday, when the Eagles played the first of two sold-out shows at the Garden (earlier in the week, they had also performed two dates at the new Prudential Center in Newark).

Drummer Don Henley, guitarist/keyboardist Glenn Frey, guitarist Joe Walsh, and bass player Timothy B. Schmit, backed by another guitar player, a drummer/percussionist, three horn players, a horn player/violinist, and three keyboardists, may no longer fit the image of the wild rock and roll star. And if you were looking for performers to prowl the stage and play to the crowd, you were in for a long night.

But the Eagles, in a 30-song, nearly three-hour concert, demonstrated that with their unabashed embrace of harmonies and dedication to solid musicianship and skillful songwriting, they stand out as anomalies in the current rock landscape. The night was about the music, pure and simple, and if you’re going to go that route, you better be able to back it up. The Eagles were clearly up to the task.

With all the history of the members fighting with each other, and the swirl of turnover in membership around the two immutable figures of Henley and Frey, it’s easy to see why they can’t stay apart from each other, musically anyway. Their collective talents are something special. Henley’s soulful voice is among the best rock has to offer. Frey provides a bit of mischievousness to offset Henley’s earnestness (at one point on Friday, Frey remarked that he was from Detroit, a place where “mother is only half a word”), and his vocals are more earthy and accessible than those of his bandmates. Schmit, aside from being a steady bass player, has a sweet, falsetto voice. And Walsh is the clown prince of the Eagles, who also brings a hard-rock sentiment to his guitar playing, a nice counterbalance to the country instincts of Frey. Separately, they are all quality musicians, fully capable of putting on good solo shows. But together, they are one of the great bands of all time.

And nowhere is that more apparent than when they sing together. How many bands still touring use harmony like the Eagles do? When these four guys put their voices together, it’s magic, a point that was illustrated by the night’s opening song, “How Long,” the first single from their latest album, the solid two-CD set “Long Road Out of Eden.” With the lead vocals traded off between Frey and Henley, the country-rock guitar lines, and the killer harmonies on the chorus, “How Long” sounded like it could have been a lost single from one of the band’s first two albums.

One of the reasons having four lead vocalists works so well for the Eagles is that you always know, sooner or later, all of the voices are going to join together. Whether it’s one of Frey’s country-tinged story songs like “Lyin’ Eyes” or “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” or one of Henley’s soulful rock compositions like “The Long Run” or “Witchy Woman,” you know your heading to a chorus of great harmonies, whether they are sweet or powerful, that are the signature of this band.

The show on Friday also showcased the musicianship of the Eagles. Walsh and Steuart Smith, the guy filling the second lead guitar spot formerly held by ex-Eagle Don Felder, have markedly different playing styles, with Smith precise and direct, while Walsh is more instinctual, a bit messy, but filled with feeling. But the way they play off each other is incredible, nowhere more so than in the dueling solos at the end of “Hotel California.” (Although you had to feel a bit bad for Smith, since he was seemingly required to stand just far enough back and off to the side to make it clear that he was not a “real” Eagle.)

The concert’s song selection featured a good mix, blending old and new, as well as Eagles and solo material. The two sets each started off with songs form “Long Road Out of Eden.” After “How Long,” the band played three more new songs to start the night. And after the intermission, an acoustic set began with the nearly a capella “No More Walks in the Woods,” before moving into the stunningly beautiful Henley slow-burner “Waiting in the Weeds.” This was not a case of a band dumping its inferior new album onto its audience. The new material stood on its own merits. One of the night’s highlights was the title cut of “Long Road Out of Eden,” an epic anti-war song that combines the musical vision of Henley’s “Sunset Grill” with politically aware lyrics not often found in Eagles songs.

There was also a good amount of material from the band members’ non-Eagle projects, although because room was needed for the nine songs from “Long Road Out of Eden,” fewer solo numbers made it into the set than during the 2005 tour. (Thankfully, the night was free of any of Frey’s solo material, with the insipid “You Belong to the City” mercifully deleted.) The set list included three Henley solo efforts (“Boys of Summer,” “Dirty Laundry” and “All She Wants to Do Is Dance”), along with four of Walsh’s extra-Eagles hits (“Life’s Been Good,” “Rocky Mountain Way” and two James Gang staples, “Walk Away” and “Funk 49”).

In fact, Walsh’s material injected some life and fun into proceedings, just enough to keep things from getting too serious. During the band’s run of eight upbeat rockers to end the second set, three of them featured Walsh on lead vocals. A swingier, less-edgy version of “Walk Away” was fun. I prefer the raw arrangement on the original recording, but it was interesting to hear this take on it.

Two songs later, after Henley nailed a dead-on reading of “One of These Nights,” Walsh took center stage for “Life’s Been Good,” which he introduced by saying he had written while lost for two years in “the Peruvian rain forest” so that he had no memory of having composed it. While I’m not happy Walsh had a drug problem, I’m glad that at least something good came of it. With its playful vocals, catchy guitar line and immediately identifiable snare-bass-bass-bass drum part, “Life’s Been Good” seemed to be the most fun the band had the whole night. As he did last tour, Walsh strapped a camera onto his head, with the shaky visuals displayed on the big screen at the back of the stage. It was one of the few times anyone on the stage moved around or engaged the audience, and it was a nice change of pace. The song is so much fun, it pretty much didn’t matter that Walsh forgot the words and blew the chorus the third time through. Nearly as much fun was a rousing, loose and rocking “Funk 49,” which started with Frey and Walsh, back-to-back in the center of the stage, trading short bluesy guitar riffs.

I thought it was interesting and telling that while Henley generally played drums on many of the older Eagles songs, but left the percussion to his stand-in on cuts from “Long Road Out of Eden” and his solo material, he was behind the kit for “Life’s Been Good” and “Rocky Mountain Way,” as if he didn’t want to miss out on the fun.

Of course the Eagles gave its fans a steady stream of their classic hits, too. “Hotel California,” which followed the opening four new songs from “Long Road Out of Eden,” was a high point. When the lights went down, and, after a solo trumpet interlude, the iconic opening guitar line kicked in, the crowd exploded and shivers went up and down my spine. As Henley sang the first line, “On a dark desert highway,” in his signature upper-register voice, and, moments later, as his long-time bandmates harmonized perfectly on “and still those voices are calling from far away,” it was clear that this was no oldies show. The performance of “Hotel California” on Friday surrendered nothing to how the song would have sounded live in 1977.

Other highlights included the rousing first-set closer “The Long Run” and the second set finale of “Heartache Tonight,” with its tremendous harmonies, and the closest thing the night had to a full-out, balls-to-the-wall arena rock song, “Life in the Fast Lane.”

The videos that ran on the giant circle behind the stage included animation, still photography and movies. The content ran a bit to the obvious (for example, showing a beach when Henley sang “nobody on the beach” in “Boys of Summer,” or random shots of New York City buildings during “In the City”), but often added to the proceedings. The gorgeous, haunting cover photo of “Hotel California” fit in with the atmosphere of the song, and the simple animation of prison bars during “Guilty of the Crime” was cute. One of the most intricate movies was the collage of television, magazine and Web tabloids during “Dirty Laundry.” The idea was incredibly on the nose, but the quality of the editing, perfectly juxtaposing the different clips, captured my attention, maybe too much, as I can barely remember the performances (a shame, since Walsh reprised his killer solo from the record).

But an Eagles show is not about video footage, it’s about the music. And by the time the final encore was coming to a close, and Henley held the final “let somebody love you” of “Desperado” seemingly forever, inspiring an immense ovation from the crowd, it was clear that somehow, against all odds, four old guys in suits, standing around on stage for three hours, had put on a tremendous rock show. And that’s not something you see everyday.

The Eagles
Madison Square Garden
May 30, 2008
1. How Long
2. Too Busy Being Fabulous
3. I Don’t Want To Hear Anymore
4. Guilty Of The Crime
5. Hotel California
6. Peaceful Easy Feeling
7. I Can't Tell You Why
8. Witchy Woman
9. Lyin' Eyes
10. Boys of Summer
11. In the City
12. Long Run
13. No More Walks In The Woods
14. Waiting in the Weeds
15. No More Cloudy Days
16. Love Will Keep Us Alive
17. Take It To The Limit
18. Long Road Out of Eden
19. Somebody
20. Walk Away
21. One Of These Nights
22. Life’s Been Good
23. Dirty Laundry
24. Funk 49
25. Heartache Tonight
26. Life in the Fast Lane
(Encore 1)
27. Rocky Mountain Way
28. All She Wants To Do Is Dance
(Encore 2)
29. Take It Easy
30. Desperado