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Grumpy Old Men: The Eagles needlessly admonish and police their fans, but their concert magic remains

The Eagles at Toyota Center February 2014
The Eagles sang almost all of their greatest hits in a nearly three-hour concert. Photo by Jane Howze
Don Henley at Eagles concert at Toyota Center February 2014
Don Henley's voice remains strong. Photo by Jane Howze
The Eagles at Toyota Center February 2014
The band performed most of their songs while standing in a line in front of a large screen. Photo by Jane Howze
The Eagles at Toyota Center February 2014
Timothy B. Schmit, from left, Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey harmonize. Photo by Jane Howze
Crowd at The Eagles concert at Toyota Center February 2014
The audience knew words to all of the Eagles' hit songs. Photo by Jane Howze
The Eagles at Toyota Center February 2014
Don Henley at Eagles concert at Toyota Center February 2014
The Eagles at Toyota Center February 2014
The Eagles at Toyota Center February 2014
Crowd at The Eagles concert at Toyota Center February 2014
News_Jane Howze_The Hacker_head shot2

The long awaited History of the Eagles tour finally touched down in Houston at the Toyota Center Friday night to a sold out yet decidedly older and mellower crowd. Based on the highly acclaimed documentary of the same name, the concert traces the band’s beginnings in the early 1970s and includes most of their chart toppers through 1979.

The tour kicked off in Louisville in July and has made its way to over 50 cities. It will conclude its North America leg in Columbus on March 5 and a European tour begins in May. After that, who knows? 

 Aside from Paul McCartney, whose voice is a little suspect at times, I can't think of any artists whose voices have held up as well. 

I was a little worried that the band had been touring too long when during the first five minutes of the show Don Henley admonished the chatty audience, still settling into their seats, “to go outside if you want to talk.” That, along with ushers who acted like Nazi gestapos in ferreting out and shaming anyone trying to text or take a cell phone photo, made it seem that the Eagles were getting a little out of sorts and becoming — well, grumpy old men who had lost their pizzazz. 

But I needn’t have worried. 

Full disclaimer here. I became a big fan after reviewing the documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and seeing the Eagles in seven concerts in the past year. What can you say about the seventh concert that you didn’t say about the first and sixth concerts that I reviewed for CultureMap? Here's what  I noted:

Same Old Concert Set

The 27-song, three-hour concert, is divided into two parts that begins with co-founders Glenn Frey and Henley on a sparse stage with acoustic guitars, singing the little known "Saturday Night." Bernie Leadon, who left the Eagles 38 years ago, joins on "Train Leaves Here This Morning," another rarely played but sleepy ballad.

One-by-one the others — Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh, and backing musicians — deliver "Tequila Sunrise," "Lyin’ Eyes" (Frey dedicated that nasty kiss-off to his first wife, “Plaintiff”) and "Doolin-Dalton," "One of These Nights," and ends with a soaring "Take it to the Limit."  The songs are interlaced with filmed commentary by Frey and Henley, which lowers the energy level of the crowd to that of a snooze fest.

After a brief intermission, Walsh sings the wistful and poignant "Pretty Maids in a Row" and the concert slowly builds with "I Can’t Tell You Why," "New Kid in Town" and "Love Will Keep Us Alive." Walsh, who is engaging, quirky and a heck of a guitar player shines as he performs "In the City" and "Life’s Been Good."

The show rises to a crescendo with "Life in the Fast Line," "In the Long Run" and two encores that includes the band’s signature song, a note-perfect "Hotel California," "Take It Easy" and Henley's hauntingly soulful solo "Desperado."

Not only is the set list the same from concert to concert but so are the jokes and stories. As I sat with my Houston friends, I would say “Now is the time where Glenn Frey says that he is from Detroit where mother is half of a word." For better or for worse — not that I minded — spontaneity and passion have been sacrificed for precision. Even Walsh throwing Kleenex on a stage is exactly the same each night.   

As the band resumed touring after Christmas break, Henley was asked if there would be changes to the set list and replied, “If it isn’t broken, why fix it?”

True enough but there are some diehard Eagles fans who wish they had included some of the hits from the highly acclaimed 2007 album Long Road Out of Eden.

The Eagles Are Perfectionists

The corollary to every concert being the same is that every concert is really good. The Eagles do not phone it in. They do not cut sets short. Every instrument is perfectly tuned and I can’t remember any of them ever sounding off-key or missing a cue.

Even though I have heard that Don doesn’t care much for his signature song, "Desperado," he closes the show with it and gives it his all. And a concert in Birmingham is every bit as good as those in Los Angeles or New York.

The Eagles Yearn To Improve

In early concerts on this tour, I was struck by how disengaged the band (other than the effervescent Walsh) was from the audience — even in Henley’s adopted town of Dallas. I so badly wanted them to soak in the love from the audience but they left quickly. Not so at the Toyota Center or maybe it’s impossible to walk away from a Houston crowd. 

In the seven months since the tour launched, the band is more engaged with each other and after the concert they signed a couple of autographs from those in the front row. Henley even blew a kiss to the crowd. But the changes are larger than audience acknowledgment. The lighting is more dramatic, extra camera angles have been added and many of the songs have been re-worked to provide a slightly different instrumental arrangement or more dramatic conclusion. 

The Eagles Are Grumps

It started in last fall when Frey told audience members to stop texting while the band was playing — they could do that later. By the New York concert, this had escalated to security guards roaming the audience ordering those with cellphone cameras to put them away. At one of the recent Los Angeles concerts Frey asked people not to stand during ballads and of course there were the omnipresent ushers patrolling the aisles looking for cameras or cell phones.

Since some of their songs are in that in-between space of rock and ballad, no one knew if they could stand or not so they sat. It put a damper on the energy level of the crowd.

In Frey's defense, he was trying to make sure everyone could see, but it came across somewhat curmudgeonly. It is understandable they don’t want people taping their concerts — try posting even 30 seconds worth on YouTube and it will be taken down in minutes — but most fans believe that paying several hundred dollars a seat should at least allow them to snap a quick picture.

Two weeks ago Paul Simon and Sting performed at the Toyota Center and seemed to welcome snapshots. C’mon guys — go with the flow.   

Grumpy or not: The Eagles are terrific

Despite all the hard living they did during the '70s, the Eagles have not lost the magical harmonies for which they are known and are still versatile musicians, though Henley, 66, has lost a step or two on drums. Over the years they have added talented back-up musicians who have been with them for many years and the phenomenally talented Steuart Smith on guitar. But the Eagles are still damn good.

Aside from Paul McCartney, whose voice is a little suspect at times, I can't think of any artists whose voices have held up as well as Frey's, 65, and Henley's. Their a cappella intro to "Heartache Tonight" was spot on. Not knowing when or if the band will return to Houston, the audience was appreciative of what the Eagles have contributed and the level at which they could still perform. 

"Iconic" was the word our group used to describe the Eagles.

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