The Eagles Still Fly...but Do They Soar?

I’ve always been fascinated by the passage of time, especially how it impacts artists and bands of a certain vintage. I find it impressive that after 30 or 40 years, certain archival acts still enjoy turning to their back pages to seep up the nostalgia and revisit past glories. Granted, there are ample financial rewards involved, especially for the upper tier musicians that can effectively corral the memories and still express the sentiment that they shared back in the day, when weddings, graduations, courtship and exploration integrated their songs into a soundtrack for times gone by.

The reason for this rumination has to do with a recent encounter with the Eagles, a concert we caught at the mammoth Bridgestone Amphitheater in Nashville a week or so ago. For starters, I should mention that our seats were about as far from the stage as our vantage point would be if we were watching actual Eagles soar in the skies above. Of course the presence of a giant screen that shadowed the stage as an effective backdrop helped the visibility factor, a much needed additive in a setting like this.

That said, I made it a point to observe the nuances shared by a band whose history goes back more than 45 years. The core of the classic line-up remains intact -- Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh et. al. -- with credible stringers that include the late Glen Frey’s son Deacon, local Nashville hero Vince Gill and Stueart Smith, the singer/guitarist/session pro who took over for Randy Meisner 15 years ago after an acrimonious feud forced Meisner from the band.

Admittedly the band is topnotch, and while the younger Frey doesn’t quite have his father’s chops, he has both the pedigree and the prowess to qualify for the frontline. Gill takes a surprising number of lead vocals, those formerly claimed by both Frey and Henley at times, although the latter is still in fine voice himself. As for Smith, though he’s firmly entrenched at the fore, he’s not acknowledged at any point in the show. At the end, when the core band takes its bows, he’s not even included. It’s a strange circumstance considering the fact that he takes a lion share of the leads and sings many of the harmonies as well. Although he has ample tenure and seniority on some of the others, he’s still the “new guy” as far as the veterans are concerned.

And speaking of vets, why wasn’t JD SOuther, a Nashville resident, and a man name-checked as a co-writer, brought out for a bow?

Ah, as far as the time factor is concerned, suffice it to say that in all other regards, the band’s sound hasn’t aged a bit. True pioneers of archival Americana, their country rock tack helped pave the way for today’s new breed of country superstars. So perhaps it’s not surprising that in addition to playing every hit imaginable -- from “Take It Easy” and “Desperado” to the venerable “Hotel California and beyond to their last recorded offering represented by “How Long,” they were able to reproduce each song with note for note perfection. The harmonies were spot on, and with an occasional brass section and strings on hand to fill in the instrumental nuances, they sounded exactly like the records.

Exactly.

Granted, most of the people in the crowd would expect as much from a band that virtually inhabited radio playlists for the better part of that 45 year career. Yet, to me, it sounded somewhat staid and rather rote. The only spontaneity seemed to occur when Walsh took center stage, and then only because his over-the-top rock star persona (one so ably illustrated by his song about excess and eccentricity, “Life’s Been Good”), was, again, expected. Otherwise the only off-the-cuff moment came when a cast and crutches-bearing Schmit’s leg injury prompted some extemporaneous comments from Henley.

Of course, one has to imagine that at this point, these musicians could recite these songs without any thought whatsoever. They’re so thoroughly engrained after all these years that it only takes attention to their craft to repeat what they’ve done for decades. Personally, I like to feel like I’m getting more from a show than I would if I was listening to the records -- and in the case of the big screens -- watching the DVD.

Time has a way of consolidating things and packaging the past. Perhaps it all boils down to the fact that we ought to be grateful that they -- and ourselves -- are still here.

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