The Eagles’ Don Henley infamously proclaimed “we’ll play together again when Hell freezes over” after the biggest-selling American band of the 70s fell apart in 1980 amid legendary bad behaviour, recriminations, and backstage punch-ups. Life in the fast lane indeed.
Well, Hell these days must resemble some sort of Winter Wonderland as the reformed band, built around the core of Glenn Frey and Don Henley but, contentiously, with a bit of a revolving cast of other original members, enjoy their20th year of filling the enormo-domes of the world with their slick brand of monetized California country-rock, still-angelic harmonies and rigorously-rehearsed chumminess.
There’s something slightly disconcerting, at least for those of us who prefer even our arena rock to be bit more rough and ready, about their meticulous recreations of the recorded version of their songs and the rather grandiloquent way the show at Manchester’s Phones 4u Arena is billed and presented as The History Of The Eagles. On the other hand, there’s no denying the visceral impact of hearing so many of those songs back-to-back, and there’s no doubt that they’re giving their legions of fans just what they want in an impressive three hours-ish show – apart, that is, from possibly missing the last public transport home if they absolutely must hear Hotel California and Take It Easy, which, ignoring the chronological approach, don’t roll around until the encore.
The stage-show conceit that we’re following the band through their formative years and subsequent huge success – complete with screened bits from the History of The Eagles documentary, and some strained, obviously-scripted banter – means the show starts off a bit weedily, musically speaking, with just Frey and Henley, albeit gradually joined by other named members (including Bernie Leadon, unexpectedly back in the circle of trust), strumming away on some of their lesser-known numbers. This does not seem to go down too well with the fans and even the chillingly composed Henley appears to be getting a tad impatient as the crowd fail to react appropriately enthusiastically to mentions of the likes of The Flying Burrito Brothers and even Linda Ronstadt, let alone JD Souther. You might have expected he’d be pleased and relieved that even after all these years some fans don’t seem to know or care where all this stuff came from, of course, but apparently not in this new era of faux-full disclosure.
More worryingly, the format means the show keeps losing momentum in between songs, as instruments are swopped and carefully choreographed places taken after black-clad roadies and a half-a-dozen ancillary musicians have also scurried about.
Still, everyone loves the songs, even if they don’t care who’s inspired or written them. No-one except me seems to find it at all odd that Frey keeps referring to one “Don” as if he’s an old pal, momentarily absent from the stage for domestic reasons of his own. In fact, key writer and longtime co-conspirator Don Felder, for it is he, left the band spectacularly acrimoniously (even by their standards) a long time ago when Frey and Henley decided that everyone else was, quite literally, worth less than they were. Lawyers, inevitably, became involved but that doesn’t quite chime with the ‘free spirited band of brothers with guitars and ratty checked shirts’ narrative, does it? Hey ho.
After the break (“we’re too old to play 31 songs without a comfort break,” acknowledges Frey, sensibly enough) and Henley’s proclamation that they eventually decided that they “wanted to rock a little harder”, things pep up considerably. Guitarist Joe Walsh proves invaluable in this particular endeavour, contributing some eminently engaging onstage looning and some of his own hit songs, such as the sardonic Life’s Been Good.
He plays the Keith Moon-inspired damaged rocker with relish, perhaps wishing he still was that wild and crazy guy but justifiably happy to still be around to tell the tale.
And so it goes. Immaculate but powerful versions of great songs (you don’t need me to tell you the set-list, just look at one of their mega-selling compilations for that) delivered in an irresistibly slick show and with some terrific onstage ringers, including the great guitarist Steuart Smith, papering over the occasional musical cracks. What’s not to like?
Main image by Jim Shea