in performance: eagles

Joe Walsh performing with the Eagles last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Alex Slitz.

Anyone curious about how in tune a retooled Eagles lineup would be with the times had their understandable concerns settled within the opening moments of the band’s very inviting 2 ½ hour concert last night at Rupp Arena.

With zero fanfare, a six member team – the lone original, the two mainstay members, a pair of new recruits and a key auxiliary player – lined up across the front of the stage to sing “Seven Bridges Road,” the Steve Young tune that was exclusive to the 1980 album “Eagles Live,” a record many assumed would serve as the band’s swansong work.

As the performance progressed, the five principle members would juggle lead vocal duties. Here, however, all were one – a resilient, harmonic front line of age, youth and no small level of musical acumen. As the voices were raised, the results sounded more like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young than the Southern California country-rock hybrid the Eagles claimed ownership of during the ‘70s. For a band used to the higher reaches of mega-stardom, this was an effectively subtle, even unassuming opening.

Much of the first half of the single-set, 27 song performance was spent establishing the identities of the new members and fortifying the legacies of the returning vets. Curiously, it was Joe Walsh who spoke to the crowd of 11,000 first (with a typically aloof “Good morning”) before introducing Deacon Frey, son of the late Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey. The young vocalist quickly took the reins of “Take It Easy” by doing just that. His delivery, though distinctly different than that of his father, was confident, convincing and, as was much of the entire concert, refreshingly unforced. The younger Frey’s delivery later in the show of “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” though, reflected an almost ghostly similarity to his father’s singing.

The other “new guy” was Vince Gill, the veteran country guitarist, vocalist and (thanks to a brief stay during his bluegrass days of the ‘70s) former Lexingtonian. Gill took to the Eagles catalog – specifically, other songs originally sung by father Frey – with maximum ease, although his still potent high-tenor voice had more in common with band bassist Timothy B. Schmit’s singing. Gill took assured but respectful ownership of everything from the rocking “Heartache Tonight” to the surprise inclusion of Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” (a tune cut for what arguably remains the Eagles’ best album, 1974’s “On the Border”). But the stunner was his treatment of “Take It to the Limit,” the regal lament co-written and sung by original Eagles bassist Randy Meisner but appropriated after his departure from the band by the elder Frey. Gill’s version, aided by choral-like harmonies from the other players, was a singular highlight of the performance.

Schmit, seated for the duration of the show with a booted right foot elevated on a platform due to a hotel room fall, was the only member whose singing revealed some wear, especially during a frail sounding “I Can’t Tell You Why.” His later delivery of the “Hell Freezes Over” single “Love Will Keep Us Alive” sounded richer.

Walsh, ever the guitar dynamo, elevated the energy level several notches whenever he took the spotlight, from vintage James Gang fare (a dynamic “Walk Away” bolstered by a five man horn section), solo career hits (the still haplessly baffoon-ish “Life’s Been Good”) and perhaps his best known Eagles tune, the darkly hopeful “In the City.” Walsh drove much of the performance simply a guitarist, whether through his own slide solos or healthy sparring with Steuart Smith, a touring member of the Eagles since 2001 and a major front line presence last night on guitar and harmonies.

That left Don Henley, the last of the original Eagles, who appeared visibly at ease with all manners of business conducted by his band’s realigned lineup. Watching him trade key harmonies with Frey and Gill revealed an almost patriarchal spirit, one that extended into the music itself. At 70 (the same age as Walsh and Schmit), his vocals revealed impressive clarity and range, from the ringing falsetto produced for “One of These Nights” to the rockish command that fortified “Victim of Love” to the quieter, folk-savvy turns within “Best of My Love.”

Nothing, though, beat the title tune to “Desperado,” the genre defining album that celebrates its 45th anniversary next week. Backed by a string quintet and the Eagles’ front line offensive, the song sounded as robustly weary and worn as it did in 1973. But there was also a sagely aspect to last night’s show-closing version, as if Henley was taking the song’s own advice to heart and letting the audience show a little love before the band called it quits. The song proved an absorbing survivor statement, one that spoke equally to the Eagles’ potent history as well as to the abundant vitality and purpose it still possesses today.


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