The Eagles’ reunion never ends
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Mixed opinions on its subject notwithstanding, director Alison Ellwood’s History of the Eagles is not only among the most meticulously detailed in its genre this year, it’s also a purely fascinating portrait. Here, you have a band that rose to unfathomable fame through the same strategy that countless musicians sought before and have continued to seek after them: Move to Los Angeles, play your ass off, form simpatico creative associations, get unbelievably lucky enough to master songwriting by living within earshot of Jackson Brown.
The wheels of the machine that the Eagles would eventually become, however, were greased by a fact made incontrovertible by the documentary’s superb cold open in Part One. These guys could really sing, so well that their voices comingling around “Seven Bridges Road” during their pre-show bonding ritual circa 1977 could have thawed the Mojo Nixon’s ice-cold opinion. While there’s little doubt that this film is confirmation that history really is written by the winners — Glenn Frey and Don Henley are at their most forthcoming, even if reading between the lines is requisite, but the viewer is undoubtedly wheedled into the takeaway that Don Felder really is an ungracious pud — that scene was a shot across the bow to the long line of Eagles deniers. The Eagles won the ’70s and as it happens, the first scene of Part Two explains where we still are with them 33 years later.
Cue Frey in a talking-head interview: “A funny thing happened right when we broke up in 1980. It’s when the format ‘classic rock’ hit American radio. So even though the band broke up, they kept playing our songs all the time. It was like we never went away.”
For a concert manifestation of the film, the “History of the Eagles” tour stop at the Greensboro Coliseum on Nov. 16 affirmed that notion. There are 29 million copies of the Eagles Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 out there, all of which and more remain rotation staples. Aside from a small change in format, this wasn’t dramatically different from their 2009 Greensboro performance. They’ve dug up Bernie Leadon for his first shows with the band since 1975 to provide a fourth guitar for the first half, though Randy Meisner’s health kept him in recovery, and the fact that Don Felder and the Eagles only communicate via lawyers limited his participation.
The presentation was designed to loosely reflect the film:
Frey and Henley are just two cats strumming guitars and singing early hits on an unadorned stage (except this time before 14,000 people and with anonymous accompaniment playing offstage). Bernie Leadon emerges and starts to fill out their sound, adding the expert country picking that would distinguish them from the Breads of the ’70s. Then Timothy B. Schmit joins in, followed by Joe Walsh, with no introduction other than what his cartoonish presence provided.
They reverently namedrop Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers, all of whose associations are more rigorously explored in the film (though Frey fast-forwards their timeline prematurely by being a jerk to an audience member who had the audacity to cough out loud with smart phone in hand — sometimes reading between the lines isn’t necessary). Henley got behind the kit for “Witchy Woman,” not because he’s still particularly great at it, but because it’s what’s expected of him.
There began the confluence between the History of the Eagles and the Eagles at present. Decades of singing while drumming have exhausted his back to the point that Scott Crago, the longest tenured member of their backing ensemble, is the guy who plays the mild percussive accents that any reasonably capable drummer could play themselves. Henley’s still by far the best singer in the group, and seeing him carry lead vocals while also manning the post most counterintuitive to that end is unguent to the thousands of hardcore fans. Seeing Crago bang out three beats in the sleepy choral progression of “Tequila Sunrise,” though, shows just how far the preservation efforts go.
The olive branch to the sizable contingent of Joe Walsh fanatics that invariably populate these crowds was that the last act was almost entirely James Gang and Walsh tracks. Absent entirely were Henley and Frey’s solo catalogs, which, if you grew up in the Triad in the ’90s, there’s a good chance you came to the Eagles through Codeseven’s buzz-saw arrangement of Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” The great irony there is that that cover was not in homage to the cocaine cowboys that inspired it, but the punk rock forever at odds with them.
Like the 2009 show, that stirring “Seven Bridges Road” never made an appearance, though Don Felder’s autobiography strongly intimated that their collective voices simply were strong enough at their 1994 reunion for that ritual to have wings. None of this should come as a surprise though. In fact, the Eagles have few, if any surprises left for an audience that has come to appreciate the band’s simple rhythm. The total package, however, was the picture of competency. The thrilling instrumental exchanges between Walsh and Felder that were highlights of the full 1977 concert included in History of the Eagles were mostly pared away for an amalgamated version of the band; one that represented a consistent middle ground between their easygoing country beginnings and their rock and roll ending.
Frey mentions in the film that he was told that the Eagles were like a band of occasion: They were the music playing in the background of important life events, but also not limited to any particular era as the near-even split down the scale from sixty-somethings to twenty-somethings in the audience suggested. There’s strong synergy between the nostalgia for classic rockers and the greater access fans once had to artists of that time and the rise of the all-access concert package because of it. If the lanyards around the necks of the first 10 rows were any indication, it’s not just the sounds, but the desire to reconstruct those experiences that have fueled the boom in tiered VIP ticketing.
If there was a highest, Platinum, Diamond, Limited, Rockstar level of VIP, it was held solely by the frontman of Eagles’ opener, JD & the Straight Shots. For the small price of a $125 million entertainment deal with Eagles manager Irving Azoff, its benefits included an opening set for the Eagles and a rock-solid blues backing band for Madison Square Garden honcho James Dolan (but not billed, his 6:45 p.m. set time was missed by thousands who abided the 8 p.m. ticketed time). Nor did it include any noticeable verve for performing, other than the opportunity to go through the motions in front of a microphone in front of a few dozen people — basically what’s had by any Friday night bar band. There’s an insert inside the History of the Eagles package promoting the DVD they put out for their 2004 Farewell 1 Tour, named with the implication that if there’s a Farewell 1, there of course has to be a Farewell 2, and so forth. The assumption that this one could be it for the Eagles is fueled in part by the notion that the best place for the Eagles to be is forever on the precipice. They’re one of the few bands that knows what it’s like to go out on top (“It’s narrow and windy up there,” Frey noted in the film) and since they’ve returned, they’ve done everything they could to stay there.