Of the many celebrity deaths in the annus horribilis of 2016, that of Glenn Frey saddened me more than most, not least as a reminder you should see your heroes before they go (or you do first!)
Only a couple of years earlier I had persuaded my partner that tickets for the ‘History of the Eagles’ tour at the 02 were too expensive, especially for a band that had been very static and dry watching on the two occasions I had seen them in the 2000’s, and that we may as well watch a DVD of their concert.
When they regrouped with a new line up to fill this huge hole, I was not sure I wanted to see them again with Don Henley now the only original member. But a mixture of curiosity and wanting to hear those iconic and quintessentially American songs one more time got the better of me.
Those of us at London show of the tour – my third trip to Wembley Stadium in successive days – were also treated to a support slot from Sheryl Crow who was on a short UK headlining tour herself. She was a brilliant choice of support, especially given she has lots of connections to various Eagles, while she cut a petite and surprisingly youthful figure, backed by a band including a pedal steel player and a pair of guitarists in Peter Stroud and Audley Freed so steeped in seventies-style country rock they single handedly revived the double denim look.
Wisely it was a hit packed set opening with ‘A Change Would Do You Good’ and ‘If It Makes You Happy’. Unlike when I saw her in the States a couple of years ago she played her breakthrough hit ‘All I Wanna Do’, reminding us that was 25 years ago, though it came over as relatively weak amid great songs of her own –‘My Favourite Mistake’ and covers – ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’.
She played one new song ‘Good Old Days’, on which Joe Walsh had collaborated, and there was a surprise when bassist Robert Kearns (like Audley an alumnus of one of the great lost bands in Cry Of Love) shared the vocals with some rather higher pitched tones. ‘Soak Up The Sun’, with some great slide guitar work from Peter and ‘Everyday Is A Winding Road’, with Audley’s turn to shine, ended an unfairly short 45 minute set which left me wanting more.
Her success in writing hit singles means we probably underrate Sheryl Crow as a serious rock artist with her bands steeped in blues, country and Americana influences – maybe a co-headline at Blues Fest would be in order?
The Eagles came on stage in low-key fashion but with no less than six of them line astern- making a statement with those precise harmonies on the bluegrass sounding ‘Seven Bridges Road’. Joe Walsh, resplendent in bright blue jacket then seemed nervously hesitant (though you can never tell with him!) as he introduced Glenn’s son Deacon, who is the spit of his younger-day father, and to complete the uncanny feeling he sounded very authentic on ‘Take It Easy’, also featuring a tidy solo from Joe, before Don Henley sang ‘One Of Those Nights’ and we had the first example of those lush, precise arrangements that characterise the Eagles both in the studio and live.
He then made a rare excursion from behind his drum kit to introduce the concert in the driest of slow-spoken tones, joking that it was dinosaur week (with Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel playing that week) but that ‘dinosaurs leave great footprints’. He then introduced the other new member, respected country star Vince Gill who took his first lead on ‘Take It To The Limit’.
As the first part of the set focused on their more mellower, more countrified work – with the exception of Joe singing ‘In The City’ and Don ‘Witchy Woman’ – he was the heavily featured lead vocalist on ‘Tequila Sunrise’, ‘Lyin Eyes’ and ‘New Kid In Town’. He had the perfect voice for them, smooth, pleasantly pitched and melodic, proving it was an inspired choice to bring him in.
Deacon was mainly just adding acoustic guitar and harmony vocals but again did justice to one of his old man’s songs in ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’, at the conclusion of which a black and white portrait of Glenn appeared on the big screen in memoriam.
Bassist Timothy B Schmit, still very much the gentle Californian hippie with his long hair and soft, high-pitched singing voice, got his moments in the spotlight with ‘I Can’t Tell You Why’, featuring a stately but tasteful and but extremely expressive solo from Hugh Dennis-lookalike Steuart Smith (still only of sideman status despite being part of the touring line up for nearly 20 years), and ‘Love Will Keep Us Alive’.
In the past Eagles shows have literally been a set of two halves with a break in between. This time they played just shy of 2 and a half hours all the way through, yet the second part of the set still had a distinct feel. Vince had been the star of the first half, culminating in playing one of his own songs, ‘Don’t Let Our Love Start Slipping Away’. I didn’t know it, or indeed a single song by him, but it was very listenable complete with a tasty guitar solo.
However increasingly it became the Joe Walsh show, as the madcap guitarist played the talk box during ‘These Shoes’(the relative weak link in the set) then dipped into his own lengthy catalogue with ‘Walk Away’ and ‘Life’s Been Good’, as well as whipping up the crowd with his (intentionally or otherwise) hilarious stage presence and surreal remarks. His nasal voice and distinctive rough-edged guitar solos contrasted hugely with what had gone before.
Don came forward for just a single number of his own in ‘Boys Of Summer’ which got one of the best receptions to date, and Deacon had a final turn at the mike as ‘Already Gone’ rocked with twin guitars.
As the main set came to a conclusion ‘Heartache Tonight’ had people up and dancing, though it was one of the few songs where Vince was found wanting, lacking enough of a rock edge, giving way to ‘Funk 49’- one of a number of songs to be given a new twist with a five man horn section – and ‘Life In The Fast Lane’ with Joe once again rocking out on slide guitar.
At the start of the encore a lone trumpeter led into ‘Hotel California’ – with a backdrop of the iconic album cover looking even more sordid as the light fell. People were snapping the moment on their phones, though I was determined to study closely some of the best guitar work in history as Stueart played the intro on his 12 string, then that twin outro with him and Joe.
There was time for Joe to once more show off his solo work and slide playing in ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ before the spotlight for once fell solely on Don as he led us through a moving ‘Desperado’, backed by a wall of harmony vocals.
I was sure that must be the last song and to quote a famous moment on this turf ‘they think it’s all over’. However they came back again and when Don said ‘this was our first No 1, to our surprise’ I realised that among all those hits ‘The Best of My Love’ hadn’t yet been played. Beautiful singing by Don, allied to the band’s harmonies and acoustic guitar playing made it an even more poignant moment.
When I last saw them the Eagles felt stale and dare I say it smug. This time, the new members had been wisely chosen, did the legacy proud and seem to have revitalised the three older hands. They had not lost their perfectionism but there seemed to be a greater energy both on stage and in the audience.
Any reservations about seeing a post-Glenn Frey line up had been well and truly laid to rest with one of the gigs of the year. There may not be many more chances but go and see these legends if you possibly can.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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