1977 was an exemplary year for music: Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Meatloaf, Elvis Costello and Billy Joel released groundbreaking albums, while the Sex Pistols ignited a grenade that changed the face of rock & roll; at least for a little while. But overall, 1977 was breezy and harmless as showcased by the artists up for the Record Of The Year Grammy: Debby Boone, Crystal Gayle, Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand. But it was the winner of that award, The Eagles, who exemplified the real sound of the past few years – that California coolness present amongst a small community of musicians that had been living and creating in Laurel Canyon. Although Hotel California was officially released in December 1976, its title track wouldn’t reach #1 until May 7, 1977.
Fast forward about thirty-plus years and an arena full of people in New Orleans are singing that iconic song with the band that created it. A downpour earlier in the day didn’t deter their crusade into the city, and sickness has not prevented The Eagles from performing for them. When Don Henley walked out, picking up an acoustic guitar and sitting on a road case next to his long-time songwriting partner Glenn Frey, he announced that the band had been ill. Later in the evening he would joke that they never got sick in the seventies because of all the toxins they were ingesting. With the band members now all in their sixties, those germs have finally caught up with them. Both Henley and Frey were noticeably sniffling, drinking water for hydration, and coughing; although Frey’s body language grew worse amongst them as the night wore him down, shoulders slumping and face hanging low. But a musician’s determination that the show must go on, kept everyone, including Frey, near the top of their game.
After giving a nod to their gestational days on the opening song “Saturday Night,” when Henley and Frey were briefly a part of Linda Ronstadt’s touring band, rooming together and discovering their musical chemistry, Bernie Leadon joined them on acoustic guitar, sitting on an amp, not an infamous curl left on his head, for “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” a song he co-wrote with former Byrd Gene Clark and appearing on The Eagles first album in the summer of 1972. In Ronstadt’s 2013 autobiography, she recollected about the band’s earliest days: “John offered to help them and suggested that they continue to tour with me while they were waiting to get a record deal and gigs of their own. That way they would have an income and I would have a solid band for several months.” J.D. Souther, the John mentioned, suggested Randy Meisner for the bass position while Ronstadt threw Leadon’s name out as an additional guitarist. Practicing together at Ronstadt and Souther’s home in the Canyon, working out a song that Henley and Leadon had written, everything started to quickly fall into place.
Timothy B. Schmit, who joined The Eagles when Meisner left in 1977, took his spot next to Leadon for “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Retaining his long mane and slim physique, Schmit would lay down some nifty bass lines throughout the night. Watching him play live really brings home the fact that his bass foundation has been a much more integral part of the band’s sound than you may have realized. Not flashy by any means of the word, Schmit did playfully coax each section of the crowd to hoot and holler during the second half of the show when the lights came on so they could see everyone’s faces.
If Schmit is the band’s Mr Tranquility, then Joe Walsh is his complete opposite. Some of the loudest cheers of the night came when Walsh would do one of his notorious songs or as he jitterbugged a crowd-facing fanny wiggle after Frey introduced him as the “Master Blaster with the Stratocaster.” The more Walsh would play, the more alive he became; especially after staying on the calmer side of subdued during the first half of the show.
Following twelve of their more laid back pretty tunes, focusing on harmonies and acoustic guitars, they took a short break, returning, sans Leadon, with Walsh on vocals for his “Pretty Maids All In A Row,” followed by Schmit’s turn with a lovely rendition of “I Can’t Tell You Why,” a song I remember monopolizing the springtime airwaves in 1980, and “Love Will Keep Us Alive” from their comeback album, Hell Freezes Over. From then on, the band was off and running with hand-clapping crowd pleasers: “Heartache Tonight,” “Life In The Fast Lane,” “Life’s Been Good,” “Rocky Mountain Way” and an irresistible “Funk #49.”
Some interesting things to make mention of:
The men switched off on instruments throughout the entire show. Henley began the evening playing an acoustic guitar for a couple of songs, moved to a drum kit that was turned sideways and equally lined up with the others, then settled in behind his normal drum kit. Frey interchanged acoustic and electric quite often, and played keyboards moved to the front on “I Can’t Tell You Why.” Walsh played a number of electrics, including a sparkly one during “In The City;” handled slide on “Heartache Tonight,” “The Long Run” and “Pretty Maids;” and brought out the Talk Box for some funky sounds on “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Those Shoes.”
Frey is the Don Rickles of rock & roll. Being introduced by Schmit as “The man with a thousand jokes,” Frey popped off a few quick one-liners at the expense of his hometown of Detroit, “Where Mother is only half a word,” and playing up exaggerated facial expressions during a call & answer guitar picking dance with Walsh.
Original bass player Randy Meisner is on the minds of his former bandmates. Before launching into “Take It To The Limit,” one of his signature Eagles songs, the band dedicated the tune to Meisner, who is in ill health, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame with the band in 1998.
Everyone still loves “Hotel California.” Opening their encore with their award winning song, people stood, cheered and sang along as if these very words were a part of their DNA. Remembering the lyrics to a song released in early 1977 is a marvel, even though it has received the heaviest of radio airplay since it debuted. Originating as a Don Felder riff, “There are a lot of interesting stories that go along with the lyrics to that song that most people don’t know,” Felder told me during an interview in 2012. This brings us to the fact that Felder was not mentioned in any capacity during the New Orleans concert.
Joe Walsh was the only Eagle to have his solo songs played during the three hour set: “Rocky Mountain Way,” “Life’s Been Good” and the James Gang’s “Funk #49.” All four current members have released solo albums during their musical career, Henley probably being the most commercially successful. His I Can’t Stand Still spawned “Dirty Laundry,” while “The Boys Of Summer” from 1984’s Building The Perfect Beast captured both song and video accolades worldwide. Frey’s biggest hits were for a movie (“The Heat Is On” from Beverly Hills Cop) and a popular TV Series (“You Belong To The City” for Miami Vice’s Season Two opener). Schmit has five creative solo records. None of these songs were chosen to be a part of the History Of The Eagles Tour.
The musicians accompanying The Eagles are spot on the money. Steuart Smith is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, who took on several big solos, including the opening chords on the double-neck for “Hotel California” and slide on “I Can’t Tell You Why.” He has been with the band since Felder’s final departure in 2001. Drummer Scott Crago has been with the band since the mid-90’s. Michael Thompson, who opens the closing “Desperado” with an illuminating piano intro, Richard Davis and Will Hollis all handle various keyboards. Together, they form a tight foundation for Henley, Frey, Schmit and Walsh to paint their watercolor melodies into lovely landscapes.
Which brings us to what The Eagles do best: When they are all lined up together at the front of a stage, no one can come close to their harmonies.
So from “Saturday Night” through “Witchy Woman,” the song Ronstadt remembers them creating in the living room of her house in the Canyon, to “New Kid In Town,” “Those Shoes” and the serenity of the closer “Desperado,” where Henley stands alone in a spotlight to sing those whispery first words, joined by the others including Leadon, to the last spotlighted note.
SETLIST: Saturday Night, Train Leaves Here This Morning, Peaceful Easy Feeling, Witchy Woman, Doolin-Dalton, Tequila Sunrise, Doolin-Dalton/Desperado (Reprise), Already Gone, Best Of My Love, Lyin’ Eyes, One Of These Nights, Take It To The Limit, Pretty Maids All In A Row, I Can’t Tell You Why, New Kid In Town, Love Will Keep Us Alive, Heartache Tonight, Those Shoes, In The City, Life’s Been Good, The Long Run, Funk #49, Life In The Fast Lane. ENCORE: Hotel California, Take It Easy, Rocky Mountain Way, Desperado.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough