BALTIMORE – It took 43 years, by their own count, but The Eagles may finally be breaking out of their shell.
In many ways, the band that took the stage to a capacity crowd of 14,000 at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore on Monday night was the same that took the pop music world by storm starting with their debut album in 1972. But this was not your father’s Eagles concert – and if you’re a dad, it wasn’t the same show you once saw.
The Eagles were often criticized – and deservedly so – for the lack of creativity in their live musicianship. But they came out of hibernation this year for a “History of The Eagles” tour, eschewing the note-for-note greatest hits show in favor of something classic rock concertgoers rarely see: Musicians growing old gracefully.
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The night opened with an acoustic set featuring co-founders Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Then they broadened that to include guitarist Bernie Leadon, bassist Timothy B. Schmit and guitarist/vocalist Joe Walsh. Henley, Frey and Leadon took the audience through the history of the band, telling stories about their formation as, initially, Linda Ronstadt’s backing band. The refreshing approach proved itself in the rapt attention they received from the crowd, which sat hushed while band members introduced songs.
We heard The Eagles talk about how their first rehearsal space in Los Angeles, circa late 1971, overlooked a parking lot and a liquor store (“Which made it convenient,” Henley deadpanned. “For parking.”). We heard The Eagles pay tribute to Ronstadt’s influence during their early years. They recalled their attraction to outlaw cowboy lore in the mid-1970s and how they turned it into vinyl masterpieces such as “Desperado.” And fans were treated to Eagles rarities like “Saturday Night” (the show’s opener), “Train Leaves Here This Morning” and the “Doolin-Dalton/Desperado” suite – songs played sparingly, if ever, since the mid-‘70s.
If only they hadn’t done it half-heartedly. After playing for about an hour, The Eagles took a break. To be fair, they’re all in their mid- to late-60s, but it’s still something you’ll never see The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen do. Worse, when they returned, gone were the stories and rapport with the audience. In their place was – you guessed it – a note-for-note greatest hits show. There were the hits from “Hotel California,” including the title track as well as tracks from their last pre-breakup album, 1979’s “The Long Run.” And there were the predictable others sprinkled around – “Take It Easy,” “Desperado,” and Walsh’s own hits like “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Life’s Been Good.”
When they returned, gone were the stories and the rapport with the audience.
But gone was the feeling these legends were in your living room, sitting cross-legged on their guitar amps and swapping songs and smiles as they’ve done for 43 years. So if you were looking for two-and-a-half hours of creativity, you didn’t know The Eagles. If you were looking for dependable renditions of their highlights and that’s enough, you were in the right place.
The Eagles have been “coming back,” however, as a band longer than most bands have been here in the first place – they named one recent reunion “Farewell Tour I” only half-jokingly. So some credit must be given, even if their creativity can’t last a whole evening. The crowd happily made that trade. It was an older, wiser, group very different from the one that crammed into sold-out Nationals Park for two nights last week to see Taylor Swift, but a group that was nevertheless content with what they heard from Henley & Co.
Also commendable was the absence of greed. In 1994, the band broke the $100 ticket barrier on their first comeback tour, charging fans what they believed (rightly) they could receive. But that same summer, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones followed suit, and the concert industry never looked back. On Monday night, however, a rather well-placed, mid-level (200 section) seat cost only $57.
The songs have aged as well as the men who wrote and recorded them.
As a singer, Henley’s soulful, sandpaper rasp remains as intact as Frey’s own rich, warm set of pipes. Walsh was his usual goofy self but showed as nimble a set of fingers as ever. Schmit, who joined the band in 1977 and is therefore still the rookie, hit his high notes solidly. If they stick to a sit-down, acoustic presentation as was much of the first half on Monday, it’s easy to see these guys playing for several more years.
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The songs have aged as well as the men who wrote and recorded them. The Eagles’ time on top of the pop music charts may have come and gone, and the industry in which they perform those tunes today is very different indeed. They seem content to slip into semi-retirement rather than climb the mountain again – there were no songs Monday night from their last studio album, 2007’s “Long Road Out Of Eden,” for example, and there has been no talk of another album.
If they’re frustrated with becoming an oldies act, they don’t show it – and it can’t be any more frustrating than wanting them to challenge themselves more. But let’s not go there. If they want to keep taking victory laps, and there are still fans in the stands, they are hardly the only ones taking that road.
There are dwindling chances to see The Eagles this year. For the rest of the month, they play Dayton (tonight), Detroit (July 24), Lexington, Kentucky (July 25), Little Rock, Arkansas (July 27) and Bossier City, Louisiana (July 29).
And then they’re gone – until “Farewell Tour II.”