by Matt Wardlaw
On a tour billed as “The History of The Eagles,” the most appropriate visual representation of the group’s tumultuous run would unfold during the second set, as the band ripped through the James Gang classic “Funk #49” with the imagery of an Eagles-branded pinball machine on the video screens behind them.
More than four decades have passed since the Los Angeles-based group made their debut and in that time, various members have come and gone, ping-ponging off the turbulent bumpers of dictatorship helmed by mainstays Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The silver ball of band politics has taken many a quarter in the form of lost wages post-dismissal and/or legal fees resulting from squabbles both onstage and off.
But somehow after all of these years, there’s still a group that continues to fly high with a great amount of legitimacy under the banner of “The Eagles” and the notoriously tightly wound group even appeared to be having a good amount of fun during Tuesday evening’s performance at the Quicken Loans Arena.
There was a pleasantly surprising looseness to the evening’s performance that one might credit to returning Eagles member Bernie Leadon, a surprise guest inclusion on this current tour in honor of the band’s anniversary celebration. Trading riffs with Joe Walsh on “Witchy Woman” early in the night, Leadon’s presence seemed to encourage a casual amount of jamming throughout the first set and he also brought a palpable presence on guitar, which really stood out next to the slinky guitar riffing from Walsh on “Witchy,” something that has been missing since former guitarist Don Felder found himself pushed out of the group in 2001. While Felder’s replacement, guitarist Steuart Smith has been a more than capable replacement, his guitar work often sits in the background of the rest of the Eagles’ playing.
The first set would bring the bulk of the history lessons, mixing deeper cuts with fan favorites with a good amount of storytelling both onstage and via pre-recorded video memories. By the time they hit the second set, the setlist took a hit-heavy turn with a music intensive focus that kept things moving without a lot of chatter. It was a victory lap of sorts which helped to nicely tie up the historical feeling of the early part of the evening.
Early on, Frey quipped that it was their aim with the first set to recreate what life was like in the Eagles during the summer of ‘71 and the tone of that set certainly had an appropriately vintage feel. The night began with Henley and Frey strolling out onstage together without the rest of the band, grabbing acoustic guitars for a stripped back run through “Saturday Night,” a harmonious cut lifted from the flip side of the second album, Desperado. Leadon made his entry for the second song of the set, joining the pair for his own moment on the mic, offering a strong lead vocal on “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” a Leadon co-write originally written with Gene Clark of the Byrds for the Eagles’ self-titled 1972 debut. The two songs were an all too brief moment that brought a feeling that was almost like you were sitting around the campfire with the Eagles, privy to some good time country pickin’.
The initial part of the first set would continue to draw heavily from the band’s first two albums, pulling deep album cuts from Desperado in particular, including “Doolin’ Dalton,” which found bassist Timothy B. Schmit playing a mournful harmonica part which enhanced the Western gunslinger feeling of the song to great effect. The better-known “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (another cut from the band’s debut album) found Henley adding light percussion using the body of his guitar and prior to performing the track, Frey reminisced about the band’s early days playing shows at Bud’s, a “dump” of a club where they would sit around and jam, working out song bits and harmony parts.
In late 1974, the band would score its first number one hit with “Best of My Love” at a time when they had already gone back into the studio to start working on their next album, which would be “One of These Nights.” According to Frey, that chart success delivered the hit records which finally saw the band making a lot of money and “that screwed everything up,” but he quickly pulled back on his statement, jokingly saying “not really.” But elsewhere in the second set of the evening, Schmit hinted similarly at the legendary discord, mentioning that his first Eagles tour was in the summer of ‘78 and three years later, “it blew apart.”
Not surprisingly, it was Walsh, a longtime hometown favorite who brought the greatest crowd reaction throughout the night. Every time he took the stage, the applause was deafening, whether he was holding a guitar or not. Introduced last in the midst of the second set during band intros by Frey as the “last but not lost” member of the group, the crowd could audibly be heard chanting “Joe! Joe! Joe” on the outskirts of a humorous performance of the Walsh solo favorite “Life’s Been Good,” with video accompaniment behind the band featuring a Walsh-themed Godzilla rampaging through city streets.
Performing for over two and a half hours (which does not include the brief intermission that brought the stage time closer to three hours total), the band’s set was a reminder of their enduring impact on American culture. Henley’s vocals in particular (especially on the set closing “Desperado”) remain richly resonant triggering many an emotion of times gone by. The Eagles are a band that for many, were the soundtrack for many firsts, whether it was that first beer, the first car or the first girl. The legacy of their harmonies and legendary catalog hold up quite well all of these decades later and the current tour is an engaging reminder of exactly why their music mattered and still continues to matter to this day.