Sunday, November 10, 2013

In A New York Minute - the Eagles live at Madison Square Garden

© Simon Poulter 2013
We've all done it. We've all wondered what it must be like to have lived in a different era. For me, it's a very specific time and a very specific location: the canyons that stream north into the Hollywood Hills from Sunset Boulevard, around 1970.

For there, amid a haze of strangely sweet-smelling smoke and all manner of bed-hopping, was a music scene that mainly wore denim and hung out in shacks, huts and ramshackle houses in Laurel Canyon and on various semi-rural stretches of Mulholland Drive.

At the time, Los Angeles was taking on both New York (then the traditional HQ of America's music industry) and London for the title of Music Capital of the World. As the West Coast has always done, it had drawn musical gold diggers to its sunshine and casual vibe, generating a post-Beach Boys LA cocktail of rock, folk and country, and bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and their offspring Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young), The Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco.

Night after night, the legendary Troubador club on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood would host various combinations of these bands and their associates, like Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell. 

It was beautiful and it was groovy, and just a short, battered Porsche drive down the twisting, turning, thrill-seek that is Laurel Canyon Boulevard, before heading back to whichever bed was in use that night.

In the middle of all this, a confident young man from Detroit, Michigan - Glenn Frey - was sleeping on the floor of a room rented by a young songwriter by the name of Jackson Browne. Frey would later be introduced - by Ronstadt - to a wry Texan called Don Henley. Together, these two aspirational  immigrants to the Golden State would form, in 1971, one of the bands that would define West Coast FM radio-friendly soft rock for the exact duration of the 1970s before imploding acrimoniously in 1980, with Henley avowing to reform "when Hell froze over". I am, of course, talking about the Eagles.

Speed forward 14 years and the Devil himself had clearly begun ice skating to the office. For in 1994, at the tail-end of the MTV Unplugged era, Henley and Frey, together with Joe Walsh, Timothy B. Schmidt and Don Felder got together to do a live show, Hell Freezes Over. Sense of humour clearly reconstructed. But this being the Eagles meant that it wouldn't be long before more strife, with the gifted guitarist Felder (it is he and Walsh who perform the legendary guitar duet on Hotel California) being fired in 2001 and then it all turning sour with lawsuits over royalties.

Fast forward again to 2013 and the Eagles are keen to tell their story. Their DVD/Blu-ray Disc documentary History Of The Eagles is doing boffo business, being a warts'n'all (albeit carefully so) account of their 42-year story. Which has brought them out on the road to tell their story, including three nights at New York's Madison Square Garden, the ludicrously enormous host of boxing fights, ice hockey and basketball games, where in front of my seat in the first row of my tier, there are TV monitors. Presumably for the myopic who can't quite see what's happening on the floor below. Or, for those easily bored and need something else to watch. Occasionally it hosts rock concerts, though just how Ed Sheehan managed to sell it out a few nights earlier baffles me now.

However, for almost the next three hours, however, it would be hard to be bored. Logging in at 27 songs, this show by the Eagles is a deliberately exhaustive greatest hits trail. Last summer, as I was driving from Chicago to LA on Route 66, I was listening to a box set of the six albums the band made between 1972 and 1979. Six albums. Seven years.

© Simon Poulter 2013
And its that canon that they run through tonight. Kicking off with a folksy set of early songs like Saturday NightTrain Leaves Here This Morning and Peaceful Easy Feeling, Frey, Henley, Schmidt and Walsh are perched on top of amps and flight cases, slightly contrivedly recreating how they used to jam and write in the early days. Delightfully, they are joined by Bernie Leadon, the former Flying Burrito Brother who was their lead guitarist (and banjo player long before hipsters made it fashionable....) until leaving in 1975 as a result of musical disillusionment.

Gradually, the set cranks up, Witchy Woman from their debut album and Doolin-Dalton from the Western-themed Desperado album that followed it, running through the sanguine Tequila Sunrise, and the evening's first singalongs, The Best of My Love and Lyin' Eyes. There's no escaping the fact that, at this point in the Eagles' career, they had quickly established themselves as the sound of LA that suited LA at the time.

Other bands, like Led Zeppelin, for example, may have turned LA into their playground, but the Eagles - along with Steely Dan and, perhaps the post-blues Fleetwood Mac - came to exemplify a form of music that wasn't quite rock, wasn't quite country, wasn't quite blues and wasn't quite soul.

© Simon Poulter 2013
But did sound good while driving up Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu on a sultry evening. One of These Nights is the song that captures that mood perfectly, and here at the MSG (which obviously shares its acronym with a key ingredient of Chinese food) it swings with a laid-back vigour, Henley demonstrating the remarkable and unique art of singing and drumming (an exclusive club populated by the likes of Micky Dolenz, Dave Clark, Karen Carpenter, The Bangles' Debbi Peterson, Meg White and Phil Collins).

Indeed throughout the show Henley demonstrates his musical virtuosity, switching between lead vocals, drums, guitar and backing percussion, dressed in a voluminous check shirt that gives him the air of a hardware store owner. His vocals are spot on, that slightly higher register of his defying the gruff, deep and dry Texan accent of his spoken voice. Indeed vocal duties are shared out equally - Frey, who always looks to be in the deepest pain when he sings, scrunching his entire face up, passing the vocal baton to the ever-so delicate-looking Schmidt, who provides an even higher register. Along with CS&N, the Eagles always were one of the great close-harmony vocal bands, something Frey explains later comes from their love of The Beach Boys.

Even 42 years after they formed, the Eagles still sound exactly as they did when you first heard them on the radio. But that doesn't mean that their performance is bland. Far from it. But after a 20-minute interval ("some members of the band need to use the bathroom," Frey quips at the end of Take It To The Limit), they return with an additional vigour. Joe Walsh, to be exact.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Walsh was already regarded as one of the best session guitarists in the business when he joined the Eagles in 1976 after Leadon had left. And his arrival marked a harder, bluesier edge to the band, with him making his recorded debut on the Hotel California album.

The second half of the Eagles set, however, starts off with a Walsh song from that album that had neither much to do with his guitar prowess or the band's country-rock back story: Pretty Maids All in a Row.

With its piano and synth backing, it was a new sound entirely for the Eagles, adding, in Walsh's own words, "a melancholy reflection on my life so far...and a valid statement for people from our generation."

Any band is a collection of personalities. And the Eagles are no exception. Frey is sharp-witted but contains a mid-western steel; Henley, ascerbic, Texan, and you just never know whether or not he's pissed off about something); Schmidt is the more accessible member, who replaced the ailing Randy Meisner and considers himself the "newcomer"; Walsh, however, is the rock star. He gets to be the class clown, the unpredictable whack-job who adds the sort of craziness to a relatively dry band  in the way Ilie Năstase used to make tennis matches more entertaining. Only not as annoying, thankfully.

On his own composition In the City he demonstrates some of the best bottleneck slide guitar you'll ever here, while on the ironic Life's Been Good, he larks around with all the seriousness expected of a song that
self-deprecatingly took a shot at the rock star lifestle. The James Gang's Funk #49, provides Walsh and the entire band with another solid workout, leading up to Life In the Fast Lane, another Walsh contribution to the rockier Hotel California album.

The first encore begins with the distinctive, jangling 12-string arpeggio, played tonight by long-serving support guitarist Steuert Smith. "On a long desert highway," blasts Henley as he pounds the equally familiar reggae-ish rhythm on his tom-toms, and the crowd, perhaps for the first time tonight, goes proper wild. The trouble with Hotel California - the song - is that it has become over-familiar. Almost four decades of constant play on myriad genres of radio stations have almost turned it into rock's equivalent of Monty Python's Dead Parrot Sketch, you know the jokes before they've come out.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Thus, Hotel California is performed with supreme precision, but with something lacking. Perhaps the band know it's their contractual obligation to play it.

The famed guitar duet - here played by Walsh and Smith - is performed with unwavering accuracy, it's complex interplay and 'human overdubbing' showing little variation from the studio original - but oddly, for the signature song of a band which represents pristine FM rock - it's the first time tonight that the Eagles have sounded so clinical.

Perhaps relieved to have gotten that song out of the way, and after another quick shimmy offstage, the Eagles return with the number which launched their career: Taking It Easy. I have a particular affinity with this song. 23 years ago I was working in an office of creative people, and to make the day more creative, we managed to acquire an office stereo. Unfortunately, we had a limited choice of music to listen to, largely the result of a boss who insisted on playing The Best of Eagles daily. Which meant the twanging, countrified guitar into - 'dang-dang-der-danga-danga-dang' is etched in my brain, along with that opening line "Well, I'm running down the road tryin' to loosen my load, I've got seven women on my mind".

© Simon Poulter 2013
It is, however, the second verse that would, like a terrorist sleeper cell, animate itself much later on in life: "Well, I'm a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see. It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin' down to take a look at me," is so specific a destination that, while driving Route 66 I couldn't help but visiting Winslow, Arizona where, at the corner of 2nd Street and Kingsley Avenue - there is a park dedicated to just this song.

Together with a gift shop pumping out Eagles songs (see From Holbrook, AZ to Lake Havasu City, AZ - Takin' It Easy). Obviously. 2,256 miles away, the song has taken on a rousing singalong value, turning MSG into a 20,000-seat country bar on a Saturday night, minus the cowboy boots, stetsons and fist fights.

With the crowd now having a good time, Walsh returns to the spotlight for Rocky Mountain Way, that blues-rock avalanche featuring the blond guitarist managing to play two Les Pauls at once, while singing - or playing? I never know which - into that plastic tube doobry that he, Pete Frampton and Floyd's David Gilmour managed to use to create a weir mash-up between voice and electric guitar.

And with that, there is just one more shuffle offstage before the Eagles - the harmonious, wise-cracking, self-depreciating, happy to trawl back through their history, 2013 edition - return to the stage and the piano introduction of Desperado, the sweeping, soft-rock anthem that was the title of what was meant to be a concept album about cowboys. Them 1970s, eh?

This has, however, been an exhaustive journey back through the Eagles' history. A 27-song set is an impressive achievement by any band, even more impressive for a band that has only released seven studio albums. There are acts with a considerably longer back catalogue who wouldn't invest in anywhere near as much stage time.

Like so many bands of the West Coast, soft-rock era, there is always room for people to sneer about the Eagles, that it was unadventurous music made for unadventurous music fans. But this show tonight has, if partly due to the grandiose scale of the venue, successfully amplified a band who were always about the songwriting. Walsh maybe their token showoff - and always entertaining he is too - but the Eagles were never about rock pyrotechnics and Lurex-clad mayhem. They were always about the LA lifestyle, the laid-back coastal vibe, the sun-dappled living of the Hollywood hills. And they managed to bring a taste of that to the chilly streets of Manhattan on a cold November night...and still render this fan dreaming of life in the not-so fast lane, 43 years ago.

© Simon Poulter 2013

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