By Mike Finkelstein
Los Angeles. On Saturday night, Don Henley played the Greek Theatre backed by an eight piece band (two guitars, two keyboardists, two female backups singers, bass and drums) and a seven piece horn section. It was a no frills affair on a rather Spartan stage, but one that allowed him to play a wide range of tunes. As a super successful solo artist and a founding member of the Eagles he can pretty much do what he wants and his audience will trust him. And this is for good reason. Henley played all of his solo hits, along with a tasty array of diverse covers, and of course a handful of Eagles songs. He was in fine vocal form and his voice is as recognizable as ever. Sharing reflections and stories, he was relaxed and appeared to hugely enjoy the ride at the controls of such a big band.
Henley et al opened the show with, of all things, a snappy version of “I Put A Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Having gotten our attention, he then began to deliver the goods, dedicating “Dirty Laundry” to Rupert Murdoch. Written during the thick of the Reagan years, the song is a scathing set of observations about the falseness, vapidity, and twisted nature of the news media. It vividly brought back the feeling I had when I first heard it — that finally the ideas I also held were coming through the car radio.
On “Dirty Laundry” and every other song performed at the Greek, the two keyboardists had all of the signature lush, whooshing, ‘80’s keyboard sounds dialed in. The two guitar players, Stuart Smith (he replaced Don Felder in the Eagles) and Peter Thorn, also nailed every note and tone of the long, hot guitar solo at the rear of the recorded version. For that matter they impressively nailed every crackle and squeal of all the original tracks they covered.
Most of the world likely knows that Don Henley began his career as a drummer, first in Linda Ronstadt’s backing band and soon thereafter in his new band, the Eagles. They soared to unmatched heights of success in the excessive mid- to late-‘70’s. By the ‘80’s the Eagles had to take a rest and Henley embarked on a solo career. It was at this point that his position on stage in live shows changed. In solo shows he no longer drums live, only singing from behind the mike stand and playing guitar. It was interesting to watch his body language Saturday night. He sang with two feet planted and standing very straight up without much in the way of leaning or twisting, nor many demonstrative waves of the arms and no leaps. Perfect form helps a singer control their breathing, I’d reckon.
About half way through the show, Henley shared a story about how he and Jack Nicholson were dialoguing the same rising (though nameless) movie actress “at one of those Hollywood parties.” As the story went, Henley failed to bum a cigarette in any smooth manner from her. Watching Henley go down in flames, Jack quipped, “Nice work, Henley.” Later that evening, Henley went home and wrote “The Last Worthless Evening.” That song turned out to be one of the best pop tunes ever on the subject of dating and finding a soul mate.
As Henley’s two hour set unfolded one couldn’t help but be impressed with how many hits the man had played for us and, still, how many he couldn’t possibly include. Each number brought us back to where we were in the ‘80’s when we perhaps weren’t partying but thinking about more serious things with the car radio on. It struck me that many of his songs really have endured robustly. In “The Boys of Summer,” there is a line about seeing a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. It still sounds ironic as it reminds us that as “establishment” as a Caddy may be, many krunchy college Deadheads of the ‘80’s became established enough to actually want to drive one … and fly a freak flag with the sticker.
Henley’s ability to put strong social commentary into smooth rhyme has always been the calling card of his solo work. His narrative of the ‘80’s was refreshing at the time for its truth and candor and for his eagerness to call things as he saw them. Though many of his hits go back around 30 years the lyrics still work well today as narratives for the struggles involved in maintaining one’s personal social integrity.
The most effective popular art usually succeeds at capturing what many of us are thinking. Henley’s songs are full of lines that do just that. On Saturday we all knew the “bubble-headed bleach blonde” in “Dirty Landry” who “could have been an actor but wound up here” dishing the dirty laundry “with a gleam in her eye.” Rolling around LA, we can all relate to the sentiments in “Sunset Grill” :
You see a lot more meanness in the city
It’s the kind that eats you up inside
Hard to come away with anything that feels
Hard to get home with any pride
A Don Henley show would certainly have to include several Eagles hits and this was no exception. Nothing too far below the surface in the Eagles’ catalogue made the set list. We got “One of These Nights,” “The Long Run,” “ Life In the Fast Lane” “Desperado,” and “Hotel California.” “Witchy Woman” was on local radio several times last week but it didn’t make the list on Saturday. Still, if you are filling up a Don Henley/Eagles set list there are going to be many fan favorites left off in the interest of time.
No worries, and actually, Henley’s choice of covers was one of the most intriguing parts of the show. He was happily all over the map with his selections. He did understatedly quip to us, as they swung through Kool and the Gang’s “Funky Stuff,” that, “Sometimes you get tired of playing country rock.” This was ironic because there really wasn’t anything country in the set. Henley and his band also covered “Guilty” by Randy Newman, Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Jeffrey Foucault’s “Everybody’s Famous,” Eric Hutchinson’s “You Don’t Have to Believe Me”and, oddly, Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule the World.” Fittingly, Henley saved “I Will Not Go Quietly” for the second encore (and dedicated it to Sting, who is closing in soon on 60 years old).
Local favorite Lucinda Williams opened the show with a set that went from ethereal and spacey to flat out rockin’ in the space of about half an hour. While the rocking numbers kicked up the dust, her set was the most compelling when the sound was subtle and atmospheric, steered this way by the very tasty delay, e-bow and slide work of guitarist Blake Mills. Songs like “Copenhagen,” and “Born to Be Loved” swirled through the clean open night air, courtesy of the great PA system at the Greek. Towards the end of the set, Mills found the chance to romp in overdrive and cut loose with a blistering solo on “Honeybee” and it sounded red hot.
To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.