Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Celebrating An American Band That Never Grows Old

This has been a rough summer in the concert business. Ticket sales are down, and a number of tours have been scaled back or canceled altogether.

Here in Birmingham, the Oak Mountain Amphitheatre--it's official name is Verizon Wireless Music Center (yuck)--normally schedules about 12 shows. It has seven on the docket this summer.

One band, however, continues to play to packed houses and strong reviews. The Eagles, who have been producing splendid music since 1971, are the American band that never grows old. They have so many major singles to their credit--both as a band and as solo artists--that their concerts nowadays are pretty much greatest hits shows.

That's too bad because the Eagles have an extraordinarily deep catalog. One reason they have endured, in our view, is that their albums tend to be stellar works from start to finish. In fact, some of the band's most memorable songs were never played much on the radio and are almost never heard in concert anymore.

We are particularly fond of the Eagles' first three albums, when they were a genuine country-rock band. The Eagles eventually would adopt a fairly heavy sound, with the addition of guitarists Don Felder and Joe Walsh. But their earliest albums--Eagles, Desperado, and On the Border--remain gems to my ears. And while I like all of the band's lineups, the original foursome of Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner (Felder joined near the end of On the Border) remains my favorite.

Next year the Eagles will mark their 40th anniversary as a top recording and touring band. The only break came with what Glenn Frey calls a "14-year vacation" from 1980 to 1994. The Rolling Stones are the only other band I can think of that has made so much relevant music for such a long period of time.

With that, let's celebrate a band whose songs will resonate long after its members--and most of us--have exited stage left. And let's especially remember some of those early Eagles LP cuts, the ones that laid the groundwork for the monster hits to follow.

One of my favorites from the Eagles' debut album is a tune that Bernie Leadon wrote with the late Gene Clark, a member of the Byrds. It's called "Train Leaves Here This Morning." This has the feel of a classic folk tune, like something Peter, Paul, and Mary might have covered. Here is Bernie Leadon on lead vocals:

Many music aficionados would call Hotel California the Eagles masterpiece, and it's hard to argue with that. But I would say the band has at least two master works, with Desperado being the other. Desperado generated relatively modest sales and produced no hit singles--"Tequila Sunrise" peaked at No. 64--but it is one of the best theme albums ever written. Its tales of the old west revolve around "Doolin-Dalton," a song about the famed bandit Bill Doolin and the Dalton Gang. The song marked the arrival of drummer Don Henley as a major force in the band, showcasing his considerable gifts with lyrics and lead vocals:

The Eagles explore their country roots on "Midnight Flyer," from On the Border. The song is written by Paul Craft, the same Nashville-based songwriter who brought us "Drop Kick Me, Jesus (Through the Goal Posts of Life)." With Bernie Leadon on banjo and Randy Meisner on lead vocals, "Midnight Flyer" is one of my absolute favorites among the Eagles early albums. If you can't tap your toes to this song, your toes must be broken:

Finally, we have another superb Eagles cover--"Ol 55," written by Tom Waits. With Glenn Frey on piano and lead vocals, this is one of the best ballads the Eagles have ever recorded--a sweet, timeless classic. Enjoy:

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