In a year when lots of classic rock artists are wowing crowds by doing their great old songs, Don Henley has a better idea. In his first tour in four years, the former Eagle is treating audiences to some outstanding new songs.
Though he co-wrote some of the finest songs of the rock era during his Eagles period, Henley waited until nearly an hour into his set Tuesday night at the Universal Amphitheatre to perform any of those '70s numbers.
It's not that Henley is going out of his way to snub his Eagles legacy by stressing the present. The singer-songwriter also included only one song (the snarling "Dirty Laundry") from his highly regarded 1982 solo album.
The emphasis on material from his last two albums cost him some early response from the near-capacity crowd--a point he noted midway through the show, when he made a passing remark about the traditional opening-night reserve of "those industry audiences" in Los Angeles.
All it took, however, to draw robust cheers from the fans was the slightest hint that he was going to do some of the oldies.
"I used to be in a group," he said teasingly--and the crowd erupted with applause at the first notes of the Grammy-winning "Hotel California."
But Henley included only two more Eagles compositions--the biting "Life in the Fast Lane" and delicate "Desperado"--in the rest of the nearly two-hour show.
If Henley sacrificed some early audience response in sticking to the new material, the decision fueled his show with an immediacy and drive that makes his tour arguably the most rewarding of the year by an American pop-rock artist.
Part of Henley's strength is his complexity. He understands life's contradictions and he works them into his songs with an accessibility that has characterized his work with the Eagles and on his own. His best tunes speak of social and personal challenges with equal cynicism and innocence.
"I'm brave enough to be crazy, strong enough to be weak," he says in "I Will Not Go Quietly," a song (co-written by Danny Kortchmar) from his new album "The End of the Innocence" that seems to summarize Henley's attitude about music and life.
The contradictions also surface on stage.
For someone who once subscribed to a no-frills, anti-show-biz stance with the Eagles, he is certainly style-conscious now. He dresses in a self-consciously fashionable (baggy) suit and wears his hair fashionably long (complete with ponytail). His nine musicians dress smartly enough (the female bassist and three backup singers in minidresses, the men in suits) for them to play at a country-club wedding.
There may be a tad of humor in all this--but it might also be Henley's desire to express a flashier side of himself that was bottled up all those years behind the drums in the old band. (He now spends his time on stage up front, only returning to the drums for two Eagles songs.)
Henley's talk between songs is equally outgoing. You don't know whether he's going into a speech or a song each time he approaches the microphone. Just as he can sometimes be polemical in his lyrics, he can't resist taking quick shots at big targets (he cited Exxon and the federal government when introducing a song decrying what he feels is a general lack of accountability in society today).
In his music, however, Henley speaks with an artful and sophisticated edge that can be equally effective on biting themes ("If Dirt Were Dollars," a slap at both tabloid mentality and flag-waving politicians) and disarming tales of romance that seem uncommonly personal. His best songs bring together both the personal and the social.
Why should Henley do an old Eagles song about the search for lost values when he comes up with new songs as moving as "The End of the Innocence"? Sample lyrics from the song, co-written by Bruce Hornsby: "Who knows how long this will last/Now, we've come so far, so fast/But somewhere back there in the dust/That same small town in each of us."
The band (which combines the Eagles' old guitar emphasis with more contemporary synthesizer touches) plays with aggression and spark, punctuating the tender moments in his music as well as the blistering ones. The volume is at a chest-thumping level that is no concession to any desire for nostalgia.
Henley's tour--featuring the recently reviewed Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians as the opening act--continues Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre, then Saturday at the Santa Barbara County Bowl and Sunday at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa.