in performance: steve earle and the dukes

Steve Earle.

After winding up the anthemic, pop-savvy sway of “Waiting for You” earlier tonight at Renfro Valley, Steve Earle shook his head, beamed a grin and offered a remark that was tantamount to an apology.

“It was the ‘80s.”

Why the self effacement for one of his own works let alone one of his performances? It might have been that the long forgotten song was one of the 10 compositions that made up “Copperhead Road,” Earle’s 1988 breakthrough album. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the record’s release, he devoted the first half of the concert to a complete performance of the album. That meant digging into the lesser known nuggets – the “chick tunes,” as Earle dismissively described them. But with the electric flexibility possessed by the current lineup of his longrunning Dukes band, Earle turned an exercise in nostalgic appeal into an expansive overview of how his storied career began connecting with a major audiences outside the country spectrum.

The five tunes constituting the album’s first side were, as Earle suggested, stronger. It offered haunting remembrances of Reagan-ism in the country carny yarn “Snake Oil” along with grim glimpses of a country just coming to grips with the post-Vietnam era. The popular title tune, which began the album and tonight’s performance, connected as much for its drug-smuggling danger element as for its more desperate, but humanistic profile of a Vietnam vet on the edge. More effective, though, was the less obvious “Johnny Come Lately,” with its Celtic mandolin/accordion jig delivery.

Earle offered insightful stories to go with the tunes, as well, including a reference to Irish upstarts The Pogues (which played on the recorded version of “Johnny Come Lately”). Color me skeptical, but my guess is this was the one and only time the band will ever get a shout out on a Renfro Valley stage. Another story, oddly enough, explained how the Oak Ridge Boys were the Nashville force largely responsible for getting Earle the recording contract that created career defining albums like “Copperhead Road.”

The rest of the program steered closer to the present with a setlist that boasted the similarly jig-worthy “The Galway Girl,” a heavily traditional country duet with Eleanor Whitmore of the The Mastersons (who served as members of The Dukes as well as the show’s fine opening act) on “I’m Still in Love With You” and a quartet of tunes from last years “So You Wannabe An Outlaw.” The latter concluded with the brooding electric doomsday call of “Fixin’ to Die,” which, in turn, bled into an equally foreboding, but highly faithful cover of “Hey Joe.”

Funny. Such a dark conclusion to the concert brought Earle and the Dukes back to the mean streets they know so well. Three decades on, they still can’t stay away from Copperhead Road.

for rick baldwin

Rick Baldwin. Photo by Jonathan Lewis.

Bass players have a perhaps stereotypical reputation for being unobtrusive in a performance setting. They’re known for leaving the spotlight to the singers and soloists and relishing their chosen role of establishing and fortifying a groove.

That’s largely what Rick Baldwin adhered to throughout his career in Lexington music venues and quite often beyond. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was the soulful bass presence for the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars and subsequent bands led by All-Stars guitarist Nick Stump. More recently, he played with the folk quartet TDH4 with Reel World String Band mainstays Bev Futrell and Karen Jones.

Baldwin died today of a heart attack, but had been hospitalized recently with pneumonia. He was 63.

“Ricky was my roommate on the road for 20 years or more,” Stump said. “He was the kindest, gentlest man I ever knew in my life. He was so gracious. In all of the time we played music together, we never had one cross word. I don’t think he had cross words with anyone in the band, and that’s a rarity in this business. I wanted to punch out every one of the other guys at one time or another. But with Ricky, I think the worst thing he ever did to me was give me pizza.”

A lifelong Lexingtonian, Baldwin had experienced a series of health issues during his life, including a two decade-plus battle with multiple sclerosis. Stump organized a benefit at The Dame in 2005 for Baldwin to offset mounting medical bills. At the time, the MS had attacked his optic nerves causing blindness.

“Ray Charles managed to make music his whole life,” Baldwin told me prior to the benefit. “Why should I be complaining?

“I know I’m not the only person in this boat. There are millions of people out there in horrible shape who feel like they’re alone in this world. When I get my vision back, I’ve got a lot of thank-you letters to write.”

Baldwin’s other medical issues included high blood pressure. Stump recalled instances – unintentionally humorous ones, in retrospect – where Baldwin’s passion for making music shot far higher than his blood pressure.

“I can remember one time where his blood pressure was out of control down in Johnson City (Tenn.). We knew a nurse there, so we called her. She said, ‘Well, give him a half-shot of whiskey every time his blood pressure shoots up. I sat there all night giving him whiskey.

“Ricky cared more about playing music and being with the band than he did about anything.”

in performance: foo fighters/the struts

Dave Grohl performing with Foo Fighters last night at Rupp Arena. Photo by Matt Goins.

“Sorry we’re late. My bad.”

That was the succinct apology Dave Grohl offered over 14,000 patrons near the midway point of Foo Fighters’ tireless and exuberant 2 ½ hour performance last night at Rupp Arena.

The tardiness, of course, was a nearly seven month postponement of the concert due to a family emergency. But Grohl and company more than made up for lost time with a show built around rock ‘n’ roll essentials – specifically, punkish immediacy, arena rock expansiveness and a hefty dose of good humor.

It’s easy with the kind of amiable profile possessed by the current six-member lineup of Foo Fighters to overlook just how in charge of the proceedings Grohl really is. The concert began with a live, offstage guitar squall before he entered alone with a mad dash around the front lip of the stage. This continued as the other members were still getting situated. Even when everything coalesced into the furious grind of “Run,” from the Foos’ most recent album “Concrete and Gold,” you sensed the rest of the band was still getting into the groove that Grohl was already running away with.

That was largely how the bulk of the program played out. Only longtime Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins, at times, was allowed the kind of room to roam that Grohl luxuriated in. Indeed, some of the concert’s strongest moments revolved around numerous exchanges between the two players, from the rumbling jam that grew out of “Rope” to the sparring that surfaced from the impressive group dynamics of “My Hero” to a duel that capped off a playfully riotous “Breakout.”

Mostly, though, Grohl and the Foos established themselves as a band of the moment. The recorded versions of the songs offered last night proved to be mere blueprints of what ignited onstage. The anthemic “Walk,” one of two tunes pulled from 2011’s “Wasting Light” album, was built largely around elemental riffs. But the front line guitar team of Grohl, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear gave such a basic fabric a huge, spacious framework. “The Pretender,” however, was just loose enough in construction for the band to take their time and peel back its post grunge exterior so more rootsy intimations could flourish.

Aside from an extended drum feature from Hawkins, this wasn’t a program that flaunted instrumental solos. Grohl was obviously more taken with mood, namely the kind of jovial spirit summoned from rock ‘n’ roll basics, than technique. Sure, he could scream and hammer out the riffs with ample energy. But he was obviously after the fun element too, an aspect that boiled over late in the program during a set of covers that included snippets of the “Grease” hit “You’re the One That I Want,” a version of the Van Halen staple “Jump” played to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and a respectful take on the Queen/David Bowie classic “Under Pressure.” The latter sent Grohl to the drum kit and left vocal chores to Hawkins and Luke Spiller, whose opening set with the Brit band The Struts was consumed with early ‘70s glam rock. Imagine the forgotten band Slade had Freddie Mercury been hired as singer. That was the vibe.

As a footnote to the evening, Grohl also revealed the cause of the family emergency that prompted the concert’s postponement from last fall – an illness that sidelined his mother. He didn’t elaborate.

“There’s only one thing I love more than the Foo Fighters,” he told the crowd. “And that’s my mama.”

in performance: “hallelujah: the leonard cohen tribute concert encore”

leonard cohen.

The side door to Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center was left open last night during much of the second half of “Hallelujah: The Leonard Cohen Tribute Concert Encore,” presumably to let some cool evening air in to counter the room’s mounting temps. But one had to wonder what any passers by along Elm Tree Lane must have thought as the finale chorus to “Hallelujah” (the benchmark Cohen tune that gave the program its name) spilled out into the street. Was it the product of a prayer meeting? A community sing-a-long? A folk-inspired tent revival?

Well, the concert was a little of all of that, much in the same way an initial Cohen tribute staged last November was. With few variations, last night’s sold-out show featured the same artists singing the same songs as before. But that was essentially the intent. It was a literal encore for local Cohen fanatics, of which there seem to be many, that either didn’t get enough of the November concert or missed it entirely.

The highlights were the same. Doc Feldman and Art Shechet still created an alternately dramatic and meditative séance out of “You Want It Darker,” although last night’s version added in nicely orchestrated piano color from Kevin-Holm Hudson. The trio also performed an equally potent “If It Be Your Will” not included in the November show.

The two song sets by JoAnna James’ trio and Nev’im that closed the second portion of program were the same as before, but none of their insightful command had diminished. James again displayed remarkable conversational dynamics on the relative Cohen obscurity “Ballad of a Runaway Horse” (better known by an earlier 1979 title, “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” as well as through a sublime 1993 recording by Emmylou Harris) while Marilyn Robie confidently led Nev’im through the Brechtian dance hall grace of “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

One notable new entry last night was a lovely reading of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” by Daisy Helmuth that was rich with a vocal delicacy that illuminated the song’s haunting atmospherics. Coolest footnote of the night: Helmuth performed in full formal attire before heading off to her prom.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how the local enthusiasm for Cohen’s music hinted at by the November concert had grown. The fall show was a technical sellout – technical because tickets were free. Last night’s show played to a crowd twice the size with a $15 ticket attached and was also a sellout. Hallelujah, indeed.

charles neville, 1938-2018

Charles Neville.

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Neville Brothers were monsters – four New Orleans siblings that could do it all. Soul, funk, pop, jazz, you name it. If it had a groove worth exploring, the Nevilles could make it their own. Brothers Charles was probably the most overlooked of the four, but his saxophone work was as integral to the Nevilles’ ensemble sound as Art’s funky keyboard lines, Aaron’s otherworldly vocals and Cyril’s soul crusader stage presence.

Charles Neville died at age 79 earlier today after battling pancreatic cancer.

The saxophonist lived several lives before the Neville Brothers’ commanding Crescent City music took firm hold of audiences outside of New Orleans during the 1980s. Some of those lives circled around addiction and incarceration at the dawn of the ‘60s but bloomed into the gradual establishment of a lasting music career as the decade progressed.

The Neville Brothers grew out of the famed Mardi Gras Indian troupe known as The Wild Tchoupitoulas. But it was with the siblings’ second album, 1981’s “Fiyo on the Bayou,” that their sound came to a boil. The album was both a career summary and career launch, touching on Art’s funk heritage with The Meters, Aaron’s vintage pop sentiments and the New Orleans street music Cyril turned into a vital new hybrid.

For many, though, 1989’s Daniel Lanois-produced “Yellow Moon,” the Nevilles’ finest recorded hour, resonated most. Lanois was the producer-of-the-moment at the time, having piloted mega-platinum albums for U2 and Peter Gabriel. What he brought to the Nevilles was a subtle ambience that enhanced the already fervent spiritual cast of the siblings’ music. As a result, the Cyril-led “Sister Rosa” became a plain speaking social anthem and the Aaron-fueled take on Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” evolved into a jazz meditation. Curiously, it was the predominantly instrumental “Healing Chant,” dominated by Charles’ snake charming soprano sax playing, that earned the Nevilles the first of their three career Grammys.

Luckily, the Nevilles played Lexington and Louisville frequently through the years. Aaron was the celebrity, the audience focal point. But the group’s music was always a family affair, a textured groove that cooked into a wild gumbo that no band in or out of New Orleans could match. That recipe would never have that sounded that distinct had Brothers Charles not been adding his unassuming but profoundly flavorful touch. He made the Fiyo burn all the more brilliantly.

in performance: chris potter

Chris Potter. Photo by Tamas Talaber.

There are fewer artistic triumphs greater for a contemporary musician than to successfully mold and recast and a tradition into something original. There was a striking moment – one of many, really – in tonight’s performance by Chris Potter at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center where that occurred with seemingly accessible ease.

It came went an unaccompanied Potter skirmish on tenor sax eased into “Togo,” a decades old work by the late drummer Ed Blackwell with roots that reached back to melodic traditions from Ghana. Potter, though, presented the tune as a conversation piece with a largely hypnotic sax solo that spread itself patiently over the slight, steadfast support of guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Fima Ephron and drummer Dan Weiss. At times, shades of the tune’s West African heritage were revealed (Togo is the country that borders Ghana on the east). But by the composition’s conclusion, the modest drive of Potter’s tenor lead and his group’s subtle, sustained groove sounded almost Eastern.

The reverence with which Potter addressed the tune with was indicative of the entire 95 minute performance, the most significant booking in the debut season of the locally produced Origins Jazz Series. The quartet was largely structured after Potter’s long running Underground band, although it wasn’t officially billed as such. That meant the prominence of two electric players (Rogers and Ephron) along with modest electronic embellishments on Potter’s part that provided loops and echo effects to brief runs on clarinet and flute that created an attractive orchestral ambience at times.

While the bulk of the show flirted with notions of funk and fusion, the music never fully surrendered to either. The funk rolls in the concert-closing “The Wheel,” for instance, embraced groove even though the tune’s restless nature continually shifted rhythmic gears. The same held true for the opening “Train,” which juggled moments of funk and boppish glee, and “Pop Tune # 1,” which tastefully suggested elements of Southern style soul more than any overt pop strains.

As a footnote, it was enormously encouraging to see such a hearty turnout for this performance. Jazz – serious, adventurous, sit-down-and-listen jazz – is a hard sell outside of major metropolitan markets. While the Lyric was well short of capacity, the attendance was generous enough to suggest the Origin Jazz Series may well be on its way to establishing a following in Lexington for such original and invigorating music. Let’s hope so.

chris potter looks to the next mountain

Chris Potter. Photo by Tamas Talaber.

The jet lag had barely lifted. Still, on the afternoon following Chris Potter’s return from a European tour with a new quartet he will show off Sunday evening for the Origin Jazz Series, the saxophonist seemed content – well, as content as a globetrotting, band-jumping composer, improviser and collaborator can be.

“It’s just nice to do a solid three weeks of work,” Potter said of his European run. “So now we’re feeling good about the band and its momentum. So we should show up in Lexington fairly well oiled.”

It’s been 15 years since Potter first played Lexington as part of the Dave Holland Quintet at the Opera House. Like Holland, he favors appealing melodic structures and robust improvisatory ingenuity for his music within arrangements and band interplay that often sounds strategically orchestral.

“For Mr. Potter, that involves more than the particulars of a given solo,” wrote Nate Chinen in a 2011 New York Times review of a Village Vanguard concert. “It’s about process and priorities, an investment in mystery, a resistance to habit and comfort.”

Not surprising, Potter and Holland have long enjoyed strong international reputations. Among their many collaborative recordings was Holland’s 2005 Grammy winning big band album “Overtime.”

“Working with Dave has been a very rewarding relationship, both musically and professionally,” Potter said. “Just seeing how he puts together groups, how he thinks about them and just witnessing the personal strength and commitment to what he’s doing has been inspiring.”

But Potter’s musical history is as varied as it is extensive. He toured with Steely Dan when it became a reactivated touring ensemble in the 1990s and was featured on its 2000 comeback album “Two Against Nature” (another Grammy winner).

“To even be a fly on the wall, to see how they rehearse the band and how they would think about the rhythms and then being a part of all that was incredible,” Potter said of his time with the band.

The saxophonist has additionally teamed with a lengthy roster of jazz giants that include Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and the Mingus Big Band. He last played Kentucky in 2014 for a Louisville concert with the Pat Metheny Unity Band.

“You’re always looking at the next mountain,” said Potter of the myriad projects and bands that have taken him around the world over the past two decades. “I feel very, very lucky that I’ve been able to spend years now involved in music that I really believe in and wanted to be a part of, both as a leader and with other people.

“I’ve been playing the saxophone now for a long time, but I still feel like I’m learning new things, even about the instrument, with every performance. So I’m just following that line the same way I always have.

Potter’s last three albums, all for the European ECM label, sport different bands and equally far reaching moods. “The Sirens” (2013) had him playing opposite two keyboardists (Craig Taborn on piano and David Virelles on celesta and harmonium), “Imaginary Cities” (2015) augmented his long-running Underground band with string players and “The Dreamer is the Dream” (2017) was a rich, acoustic quartet session highlighted by Potter’s playing on flute and bass clarinet as well as saxophone.

Perhaps fittingly, the band Potter will perform with on Sunday at the Lyric Theatre, presents a different lineup from all of those records. It plucks two electric players from the Underground – guitarist Adam Rogers and electric bassist Fima Ephron – along with drummer Dan Weiss, who has worked with another acclaimed saxophonist who recently visited Lexington, Rudresh Manhanthappa.

“I hadn’t really explored the more groove aspect of my musical influences, so this band gives me a bit of a platform to express that. I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire along with Weather Report and the Headhunters. That’s been a part of my musical DNA from an early age, along with Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. This group helped me find a way to explore that and play really organically in a kind of funk context.

“I’m not terribly methodical. I don’t really have a manifesto. The way I approach playing is that with whatever situation I’ve gotten myself into, the reactions I’m going to have and the things I’m going to say musically come from my thought process. It’s the same as if you’re going to have a conversation with someone. You could be talking with them about anything, but the way they process information and the way you express yourself come through no matter the subject matter. That’s what I’m trusting in. That’s what I’m exploring.”

Chris Potter performs at 7:30 p.m. April 22 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets: $25. Call: 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

in performance: brantley gilbert/aaron lewis/josh phillips

Brantley Gilbert performing last night at Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

Within the first few bars of the show-opening “My Kinda Party,” Brantley Gilbert placed all of his performance cards squarely in view of the 5,550 fans he pulled into Rupp Arena last night.

On the upside, his stage demeanor seemed energetic, good natured and immensely audience friendly – especially the latter, as those he happily slapped hands with along a walkway that ran down the arena floor can attest to.

Also in the plus column was a knowing sense of the contemporary country market that has made Gilbert a significant star over the past decade. That meant an efficiently staged show with the usual Spinal Tap-ish pyrotechnics, video screens and, most of all, an impressively flexible band whose role in fleshing out the variety of styles that gradually unraveled during the 90 minute set – the hip-hop cool of “Dirt Road Anthem,” the metal-esque crunch of “It’s About to Get Dirty” and radio-friendly country-pop of “More Than Miles” – proved continually pivotal.

The takeaway from last night’s concert that was more disconcerting was how weak a vocalist Gilbert was. Maybe he was ill. Maybe it was spring allergies. But from the onset of the show, Gilbert’s singing was a coarse, internalized mumble. He would bark out occasional exclamations to trigger audience involvement, but there was little within initial electric party pieces like “Country Must Be Country Wide” and “My Baby’s Guns N’ Roses” to suggest any kind of sustained vocal drive.

When the pace chilled and the volume settled for tunes like “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” and brief acoustic revisions of “Them Boys” and “My Kind of Crazy,” a modest level of fluidity and detail was detectable in the singing. On more discernable crowd favorites, though – “Small Town Throwdown,” for instance – the audience took over some of the vocal load.

This may have indeed been his kind of party, but Gilbert’s surprisingly lax vocal command definitely took the fire out of the celebration.

That wasn’t the only curiosity to the evening. Preceding Gilbert was an hour-long, chain smoking set by Staind vocalist Aaron Lewis. That’s the right, the same Aaron Lewis who powered such post-grunge anthems as “Right Here” and “It’s Been Awhile,” both of which he played. But Lewis wasn’t as much of a fish-out-of-water artist last night as one might suppose. His country material often revealed serious honky tonk volition as well as subtle but determined narrative digs, all of which were on display in an industry swipe called “That Ain’t Country.” The set-opening “Country Boy,” on the other hand, was all dark, swampy contemplation akin to the late ‘70s records of Hank Williams, Jr.

Sure, there was requisite jingoistic plundering and pandering (Lewis began his set by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance), but for the most part, there was an uncompromising solemnity and soulfulness to his performance that was quite arresting.

The evening began with a 20 minute solo acoustic set by North Carolina newcomer Josh Phillips. The singer racked up bonus points for playing without a band in an arena setting, but little was offered to distinguish his songs from the same thematic blather that permeates country radio today. When you have to turn your show-opening song – in this case, “Tonight Ain’t the Day” into a medley with a cover of “Highway to Hell,” you’re not exactly displaying unshakeable confidence in your work.

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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don henley on the 2018 eagles: “we wanted everybody to be all in”

The Eagles, from left: Joe Walsh, Vince Gill, Deacon Frey, Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit. Photo by George Holz.

At the onset of the Eagles’ last Rupp Arena concert, frontmen and lone mainstay members Glenn Frey and Don Henley entered from opposite sides of the stages.

Longtime fans might have viewed this as a coming together of two figurehead performers who helped define a ‘70s Southern California rock community, one that would also dictate the direction of a country music generation decades later. But audiences also knew the Eagles carried a fair amount of in-house baggage over the years full of aggravated relationships that dissolved the band seemingly for good in 1980. The split, in fact, appeared so permanent that the title of a 1994 comeback album half-jokingly referenced the long-held prospect of a reunion – “Hell Freezes Over.”
Yet, here on a late July evening in 2015, with the Eagles long since re-solidified as sagely and resiliently popular touring attraction, Frey and Henley opened the show without accompaniment, singing one of the few songs in a 2 ½ program that was not a hit – a decidedly nostalgic folk reverie from the 1973 Eagles album “Desperado” called “Saturday Night.” It opened the third to last performance of a tour that began two years earlier. It was also the third to last performance Frey would give with the band.

“The guy played through pain for several years,” said Henley during a phone interview last month. “He hid it very well. I could see it in his fingers. His rheumatoid arthritis made his fingers swollen and bent. It was difficult for him many years. But like an old football player, he would get himself taped up and go out there on the field and play the game, so he hid it very well. But he was very uncomfortable for a long time.”

In January 2016, Frey died at the age of 67. In addition to rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis, he had also developed pneumonia the preceding fall. His death placed the often tenuous future of the Eagles again in question. Did Henley, now the lone original member, sense this was the Eagles’ final bow?

“I didn’t sense it, no. As we always say, the Eagles were breaking up from the day the Eagles got together. It was a constant, ongoing thing. But in the past decade or two, we had gotten into the habit of making a reassessment every January. We would stop touring, usually, in October and then go home for the holiday season. Then when January rolled around, we would all get on the phone together to reassess and see if everybody was willing to go on or not, because we were very conscious of everybody’s enthusiasm or lack thereof. We wanted everybody to be all in, so to speak, before we decided to continue.

“We always want to be able to deliver a quality show, a show that is up to the standards that the fans expect. When we feel we can no longer do that, then we’ll hang it up. So when that tour you were speaking about ended, we just thought we would take a two or three month break, then we would probably tour some more the following year. Then the tragedy happened in October. That’s really when Glenn fell ill. That’s when the pneumonia struck. So you never know what’s going to happen in this life. It’s full of unexpected events.”

With its Tuesday return to Rupp Arena, the Eagles boast two new members in Frey’s absence. The first is the late singer’s son, Deacon Frey, whose stage experience prior to joining was largely limited to benefit shows with his dad. But for Henley, his involvement was essential for the Eagles to continue.

“Deacon carries his father’s torch. He carries his father’s spirit. It blows my mind sometimes when I’m sitting at the drums and I’m looking at the back of his head. His hair looks just like his dad’s did in 1974. It’s like déjà vu. We’re all like uncles to him, so it very much has a feeling of family. Having Deacon in the band is really the only way it made sense to me. It’s the only thing that, to me, would make it ethically alright to carry this on. And if he hadn’t been able to do it, I don’t know if we would be out there again this year.

“His first show with us was at Dodger Stadium, so that’s a pretty big leap for a young man. And he did it. He amazed all of us with his composure. But, of course, it’s still an emotional thing for him. Deacon is dealing with it, but he still has moments of emotional upheaval when he remembers his dad. But we all surround him with love and support.”

The other new recruit is distinguished country veteran Vince Gill, a prolific singer, guitarist and hitmaker, as well as part of the Nashville generation that found considerable inspiration in the country-esque verses and harmonies that drove early Eagles favorites like “Take It Easy,” “Tequila Sunrise” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

“Vince, of course, is just a natural fit,” Henley said. “After we decided to put Deacon in the band, Vince was the other obvious choice to come in. He adds years of experience and he’s an extraordinary singer, an extraordinary guitarist and a great songwriter, plus he’s having a really good time out here with us.”

Deacon Frey and Gill join Henley and the two other permanent Eagles – Joe Walsh (who joined in 1975) and Timothy B. Schmit (who joined in 1977). Will their flight continue after touring concludes this fall?  Henley said that call will be made at a later time. Until then, he intends to journey on with a storied band whose entire lifespan has defied rock ‘n’ roll odds.

“We are all acutely aware of what an extraordinary run we’ve had and how this band has had almost as many lives as a cat. We’re aware of that every day and every night. That gives us an edge, energy and will to continue, because we know how unusual our career has been and we know how fortunate we are.”

The Eagles perform at 7 p.m. April 10 at Rupp Arena, 430 W. Vine. Tickets: $49.50-$229.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to rupparena.com.

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