Where: o2 Arena, Greenwich, London
When: 16-21 June 2014
Something had made Don Henley slightly annoyed. “We don’t do this because we’re bored”, he informed the audience at the o2 arena in Greenwich.
In an interview two weeks before, Robert Plant had been informing the press why he wouldn’t join a Led Zeppelin reunion that Jimmy Page had suggested. Some old bands go back out on tour because they’re bored, he suggested, and he wanted no part of that. And then he went on to specifically mention the Eagles and Don Henley had obviously heard the reports.
“We do this because it’s the best flippin’ job in the world”, he went on, “and it makes you happy”.
Leaving aside the fact that the ticket prices and all kind of other restrictions that the band require from their audience suggest something more than a purely altruistic motive, he may just have a point.
When a solo artist continues on well into their dotage no-one raises an eyebrow. In fact, it is seen as a badge of courage and a noble thing (as reviews, for example, of less than stellar recent BB King shows will attest).
When a band comes back together, it is less warmly applauded and questions are always asked about motives. For this writer, the dividing line is not between bands and solo artists but between on-going creativity and pure nostalgia.
So on that scale and judging by the evidence presented at the o2 where do the Eagles stand?
Well, it must be noted that that the Eagles have undertaken four phenomenally successful world tours since they reunited in 1994 (yes, it has been twenty years – twice as long as the first time around).
The first, Hell Freezes Over, was a reintroduction to the band’s music after some 14 years away and just for good balance mixed in some new songs and acoustic performances. One-Nil to the guys who are associated with California, even if they never came from there.
The second, Farewell One, lost points for a jokey title (invented by Glenn Frey) which led to people buying tickets for what they thought would be the last time around, when the band, apparently, meant it to poke fun at other bands who retire several times. Farewell One might be followed by Farewell Two and so on. The joke misfired. Really it was an opportunity for the band to see if they could cut the mustard without Don Felder who had recently been sacked. Not a bad show but on the whole a greatest hits effort which trawled too much of the same old territory. Things improved slightly by the time they reached the antipodes when some new songs started to appear but perhaps too little, too late. One-One.
And then the third, Long Road From Eden. The band had created a new album of nineteen songs which held up pretty well in any comparison with their back catalogue and it was this set of songs which fired this new venture. Excellent show with a good smattering of hits too. As the tour went on some of the new songs began to disappear but the initiative of the earlier shows carried the day. Two-One.
And so to this new tour, the History of the Eagles. Now judging by that title alone, if this wasn’t going to lose points for pure nostalgia nothing was. But the title belies a good deal of imagination and careful thought that the Boys of Summer have put into this show and it looks like another win for these wily old grey-heads.
The ace-in-the-hole is the decision to bring original lead guitarist, Bernie Leadon back into the band. And this works a treat. The first half of the show becomes an exploration of everything that made the Eagles special before “Hotel California”, the second becomes a collection of the hits from that major album and beyond. Consequently, there is something for everyone at this major feast.
From the moment that the first band members took the stage it was evident that this night was going to be something different from your average Eagles concert. I say band members because to begin with only Glenn Frey and Don Henley appeared. They sat down on amplifiers with acoustic guitars and began to strum the opening melody of a lesser known track “Saturday Night” which had originally appeared on the Desperado album. Henley’s voice was lower than it had been on previous tours and with his grey beard, he appeared to have aged quite a bit since last time out. However, this only made the harmonies that Glenn and Don sang together all the more impressive and a taster of how it would be later in the show in the show when 5 or 6 voices sang together to provide that harmonic mix that Eagles are famous for.
After the song, Mr Henley took up the story of how the band had formed in the second half of 1971 and how this process was aided by Linda Ronstadt’s recommendation of a guitarist “who had been hanging out in Topanga Canyon” which was a cue for Bernie Leadon to enter from the audience’s left. After a joke about the way that the now bald Mr Leadon’s hair had changed over the years whilst his taste in shirts had not, Bernie went straight into “Train Leaves Here This Morning” which he had originally written for Dillard and Clark and which then was recorded by the Eagles on their debut self-titled album. Leadon learnt a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of his voice during the recording of his album “Mirror” a few years ago and this shows with an immaculate rendition on which Bernie’s lead vocals and guitars were supported by the other two.
Then it was Frey’s turn to take up the story with an explanation of how he had met Jack Tempchin who had a new song. Mr Frey explained that he was especially keen to use this song with his new band because it was reminiscent of his favourite band of the day, Poco. Once again this is a cue and this time for former Poco bassist, Timothy B. Schmit to enter from the audience’s right. By now the audience was getting the idea and the atmosphere was building as the now 4-piece band went into “Peaceful Easy Feeling”. Again, even forty plus years on, you can imagine what it was that persuaded Glyn Johns to produce these guys’ debut album. The sound of their vocals is unique and always was.
But the Eagles needed another card in their hand if they were to be something more than another Poco or Crosby, Stills and Nash especially because those other bands had appeared on the scene long before this outfit did. In reality, it wasn’t until the third album and 1974 that the band began to fully stretch the rock muscles in their country rock label. But that is the great advantage about a night like tonight. You can re-write history.
So when Mr Leadon told the audience about the gestation of the song “Witchy Woman”, it was a good time for Joe Walsh to enter to provide the twin lead guitar sound which was to become an essential part of their sound when Don Felder (who remains totally unmentioned tonight) joined the band during the recording of the “On the Border” album. The song is worked out slightly differently with the drums to the forefront which allowed Walsh and Leadon to solo over the solid backbeat between verses. This wasn’t entirely successful and the band would do well to look back at the very fleshed out versions that first Leadon and Felder then Felder and Walsh played on the ’75 and ’77 tours respectively.
After “Witchy Woman”, the stage layout began to be transformed. The intimate setting and amplifiers-as-seats disappeared. The low hanging lights that were meant to create the sense of a small rehearsal room or club receded and the stories between songs which had begun by being told from the stage are now told by pre-recorded clips on the large screens at either side of the stage. This allowed the band to enter into full formation for the rest of the night and for Steuart Smith and the other support musicians to take their positions.
The band’s history had now moved from an acoustic set which concentrated largely on their first album to looking at the highlights of the second record “Desperado” which although low selling at the time of release has become one of the Eagles best known albums.
Frey explained how the album came together when Ned Doheny gifted Jackson Browne a volume called “The Book of Gunfighters”. Henley added how the “Desperado” album was the beginning of the Frey/Henley songwriting partnership. This pre-recorded information film gave way to Timothy B. Schmit on harmonica leading into a version of “Doolin-Dalton” which exactly recreated the sound of the original from all those years ago.
More acoustic led sound followed but now with additional keyboard and slide sounds as the band revisited “Tequila Sunrise” which they had left out of their set on the “Long Road Out of Eden” go-around and it was nice to hear it restored here.
For this writer, the highlight of the night was the double header of “Doolin-Dalton (Reprise)” and “Desperado (Reprise)” which was immaculately performed and had the dual blessing of taking me back to the teenage years when I first heard the “Desperado” album and the greatest volley of blended voices that I have ever heard from a stage, on the climax. With Leadon on banjo and everything just right, this was as near a perfect musical moment as I am likely to find.
Unsurprisingly, there would be more from the “Desperado” album during the encores but for now it was time to move on to the songs from the third album “On the Border”. The first song from that set was “Already Gone” which had never been my favourite but tonight is revolutionised by the four guitars of Leadon, Smith, Walsh and Frey and once more great, great harmonies. The whole thing is accompanied on the big screen behind the performers by a funny little film of Glenn Frey leaving town in the spirit of the song. Another highlight of the night and this time a surprising one.
Next is “Best of My Love” with Frey explaining how the single release came about almost by accident when the song took off at radio. It eventually became their first U.S. number one. This is a song that the Eagles perform remarkably seldom and when they have done it in recent years, it has been accompanied by Al Garth on saxophone. For this tour, the horn section has been ditched. I think this is a good move. It was a nice departure for the band at first but they have now been around the world a couple of time with that formation and it’s nice to hear songs like this stripped back to the way they were originally intended. Henley’s voice struggled a little on this but on the whole he is holding his own.
The band, without too much comment, then move onto their fourth album, the one that cemented them as a top division band in commercial as well as musical terms. First up from “One of These Nights” is “Lyin’ Eyes” which was probably the peak of the Eagles’ reputation as a country band. This is one of the few times in the first half of the show when Steuart Smith’s presence is something more than a luxury.
Second from “One of These Nights” is the title track which is given a vigorous workout and is accompanied with nice harmonies by Schmit, Leadon and Frey. Finally, from this album and finally for the first set, the band present “Take it to Limit” which would be best left to the days when Randy Meisner was available to sing it. This line-up handle it better than has been the case on recent tours but Frey’s vocal cannot hold a candle to the guy who originally co-wrote it and sang it.
In the second half of the show, the Eagles lost touch with much of the concept idea behind the show. The notion of moving through the years sequentially is abandoned as the set hops back and forth between 1976, 1979 and 1994. The “Long Road Out of Eden” album is completely ignored. I asked Bernie Leadon about this and he said he thought that decision was made because the band wanted to concentrate on their best known songs in the second half to build momentum. Momentum there is in spades but it was a less brave set than the first half, with the second half becoming a mini Eagles Greatest Hits Volume Two celebration which is a little too familiar to those of us who have seen the band many times over the last twenty years.
Leadon, himself, is left back in the dressing room, as he didn’t play on any of the songs after the “One of These Nights” album.
The weight of the second set falls on Joe Walsh who carries it well. However, given the History of the Eagles concept, it is odd that two songs from Walsh’s solo career which he wrote and recorded prior to joining the Eagles are included. They are great songs but they don’t fit in this show.
The opening of the second set was announced by a recording of “Wasted Time (Reprise)” playing through the speakers. There was lots of scuffling and rushing for seats because frankly for such a modern venue the queue for the toilet at the o2 was ridiculous – an indicator of very inadequate provision. Many people had waited the whole interval and now gave up to try and make their seat before Joe Walsh took up the melody of a beautiful, tender version of “Pretty Maids All in a Row” from the “Hotel California” album.
Next, we jumped forward in time a couple of years for Timothy B. Schmit’s vocal piece “I Can’t Tell You Why” from “The Long Run”. Schmit’s voice has suffered through both health problems and injury in the last few years and sounded a little thinner but still pleasant although he relied noticeably on the other vocalists for more support than he had in the past. Steuart Smith perfectly mimics the solos that Don Felder used to play in live shows prior to 2000 but which on the original album were credited to Glenn Frey.
It’s back to “Hotel California” next for “New Kid In Town”, another Glenn Frey lead vocal which had been left out on the last tour. Frey sounds great and so do the mix of keyboards and guitars. It’s tough not to like the Eagles when they are this polished and skilled unless it is the polish that you despise.
Then it was over to Timothy to work up the crowd with some nonsense with the house lights. He, then, takes the band into the gentle acoustic territory of “Love Will Keep Us Alive” which is the most recent song in the show – a mere twenty years old. It is not as if the band doesn’t have more recent material to choose from – both from their band projects and solo work. I wouldn’t have cut “Love Will Keep Us Alive” but I would have included material from the aforementioned “Long Road Out of Eden” – perhaps the Schmit / Henley vocal piece “Do Something” or the light-hearted Walsh-led piece “Last Good Time in Town”.
On recent tours “Heartache Tonight” has been dominated by the horn section the band carried with them so it is refreshing to hear it stripped back although I can’t hear in it the comparison that Frey wants to make to the Beach Boys. Also, it is curious that at this juncture the band went to great lengths to get the crowd to stand and dance having had heavy-handed announcements made on both the public address and video screens to discourage standing. I doubt that you can have things both ways. These announcements are combined with similar stuff about not using mobile phones to take pictures which results in arena staff running up and down rows to discourage the practice leading to the very disruption that the band are presumably seeking to discourage.
“The Long Run” was a very under-rated album at the time of its release and time has nothing to correct that impression. It is a sign of how strange that on-going view is, even amongst diehard fans of the band. When you consider just how many songs in every Eagles show come from that very set. The lead vocal by now has been passed once more to Don Henley who delivered his finest vocal of that night to the bass rhythms of “Those Shoes” which Joe Walsh set alight with his talk-box guitar work.
Another “The Long Run” tune was next as the aforementioned Mr Walsh took his turn on the round robin of vocal duties on “In The City”. Too often Don Henley’s drum work goes unnoticed but on this number he sounds great. Meanwhile, Joe was evidently warming up for the big finish as he worked out a great guitar solo at the conclusion. Throughout this second set, he was perfectly partnered by Steuart Smith who while being almost redundant in the first half is truly necessary on these songs that originally featured the dear departed Mr Felder.
After the obligatory band introductions, a now thoroughly warmed up Walsh really becomes master-of-ceremonies and takes the band and the entire audience through the joyful ride that is “Life’s Been Good”. It was performed in the same way as Walsh has been performing it on every Eagles tour for the last twenty years with video camera attached to his head and dashing from corner-to-corner of the stage (although noticeably relying less on Steuart Smith to help out as he does this) but it never gets tired. The entire arena got to go “uuhhh” at a moment that our MC had designated before the song began. Everyone was now set in a heady atmosphere for the conclusion of the show. Most every band would have run out of crowd-thrilling songs by now but not the Eagles. They are playing to their strengths and can look out at their audience with the confidence of knowing that even after such a long show, well-armed with lesser known nuggets and so much that the audience wanted to hear, their best known songs are still up their sleeve.
The band returned once more to the 1979 album “The Long Run” from which they played the title track. This is one of the few times (if ever) the band has played this song live without a horn section or at least a saxophone to help out. Even on the tour that the band performed when the album was new they took along sax players like Phil Kenzie and David Sanborn and since the resumption of their work in the mid-1990s, they have usually had a full horn section in tow so this is a new old way of hearing the song.
Joe Walsh started his time out in the James Gang and one song that has been part of the Eagles set since he joined this band is “Funk #49” which dates back to that era. The song opened with the mock battle where Glenn and Joe trade licks until Walsh inevitably won and then went into a fairly perfunctory reading of the song.
Final song of the main set was “Life in the Fast Lane” from “Hotel California” which is enlivened by Walsh and Smith who were now clearly enjoying themselves. Joe Walsh is playing guitar better than he has for years and whatever has been said in the past, he is not being restrained by the Eagles format at all.
So when the band retreated from the stage, it was still very apparent that there is much still to be said and that many of the band’s classics have been held back for the moment when they would inevitably be beckoned to return. Without the horn section, the Mexican-sounding trumpet intro to the next song is no more and it was a very conventional and tight reading of “Hotel California” which was delivered up for the masses. Most everyone knew the words but most everyone preferred to listen to Don Henley sing and drum. The classic duel of guitars at the conclusion was as spell-binding as ever with Messrs. Walsh and Smith again right to the fore.
Once again the band left the stage and once again, it was only for a few moments before their return. This time they brought with them Bernie Leadon, fresh from his dressing room and keen to be back in the fray. For “Take it Easy”, he played guitar when perhaps having banjo would have enabled the band to come closer to the original recording. Then there was “Rocky Mountain Way” and finally “Desperado” with the audience moving from rocking out with one number to the poignancy of the other with experienced ease.
I don’t know if the Eagles will return to European shores again – I doubt if they do – but if they don’t then these shows will prove a good way of bowing out. If they do, then it will take some real imagination to come up with yet another big idea for a show which allows them to work out these old songs in a way that gave them as much meaning as the “History of the Eagles” tour.