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Pop Music Review : Ex-eagle Henley Soars As Solo

September 02, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

After all his years with the Eagles, it seems strange to think of Don Henley as the "New Kid in Town."

But there was a triumphant, star-is-born feel to his local solo debut Saturday night at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre that recalled the excitement of discovering a fresh talent outlined in that 1976 Eagles hit.

It must have been satisfying for Henley when many in the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end of "Witchy Woman," the first of four Eagles songs he played during his nearly two-hour set.

However, he probably felt even more pleased two songs later when he and his driving, precise eight-piece band received another ovation--this time for "Sunset Grill," one of the songs that he has written since the breakup five years ago of that quintessential Southern California band.

The issue surrounding Henley's first solo tour wasn't the quality of his music. He demonstrated with the Eagles that he was one of the premier singers and songwriters of the modern pop era, and the best songs on his two solo albums are equally graceful and compelling.

The question mark when this series of shows began in June in St. Louis was Henley's ability as a performer. Though he sang lead on roughly half the Eagles' tunes, he was usually hidden behind the drums. Would he have the confidence and personality to be an effective leader on stage?

Henley tackled the issue of identity head-on Saturday. When the elaborate bank of high-tech stage lights was turned on, he was standing in front of the drum kit, wearing a baggy suit that looked straight from the pages of GQ, a long way from the scruffy-jeans attire of the Eagles.

Rigid for a few seconds, he began edging toward the front of the stage, moving his head and arms in robot fashion to underscore the mechanical undercurrents of the night's opening song, "Building the Perfect Beast." The lyrics decry science's continuing drive to control every aspect of human biology and behavior.

Henley attacked the song vocally with confidence and authority, setting a tone that continued through the show. He was alternately theatrical and playful. He dedicated "Them and Us," an attack on nuclear weapons, to President "Ron-bo." During a lengthy instrumental passage on "Hotel California," he glided through simple but amusing dance steps with one of the female backup singers that alluded to all the trendy, decadent asides suggested in the song.

At times, Henley--who played drums on only one song--seemed too studied, as if he had sat down and figured out something to do visually during every number. Mainly, however, he was strikingly effective in this new role.

Despite the visual emphasis of the show, Henley has not shortchanged his music. He continues to be an expressive singer, equally convincing on both delicate and biting numbers. He also has assembled excellent musicians and devised crisp, contemporary arrangements that utilize both aggressive guitar and synthesizer touches.

The songs, however, remain his greatest asset. Such Eagles standards as "Hotel California" and "Life in the Fast Lane"--both of which were included in Saturday's program--chronicled brilliantly the self-absorbed life style associated with the '70s "Me" generation.

Though his recent material has been written with Danny Kortchmar instead of Glenn Frey, the songs remain inviting works whose themes have been expanded greatly to include both bittersweet reflections on romance and a harder cultural and/or political edge.

Henley's concert was one of the rare occasions in pop where there was no lull. Who would have ever thought that this alumnus of one of the most gifted bands of the '70s would, in the long run, be in reach of an equally distinguished career in the '80s.

The show was opened by Mr. Mister, an L.A.-based rock group that has been reviewed previously. The tour also was scheduled to include stops at the Open Air Theatre in San Diego on Sunday night and at the Universal Amphitheatre on Wednesday and Thursday.

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