A few songs into a sold-out Saturday night concert at ACL Live, Don Henley summed up this moment in a long and distinguished career with a telling comment. Informing the crowd that he and his 15-piece band would be playing for more than two hours, he explained that their motivation was a simple one: “We want to do it while we can.”
Wednesday will mark a full year since the death of Glenn Frey, Henley’s close compadre in the Eagles for 45 years. In July, Henley, a native of the small East Texas town of Linden, will turn 70. This late in the game, it can’t be about money, fame, sex, drugs or the other fabled trappings of rock ‘n’ roll. It has to be about the music.
The show’s opening moments made that clear. Three dozen old-time radio models hung from the rafters, and brief sound clips of songs and historical broadcasts from long ago played from the sound board for a few minutes as the spotlight shifted from one radio to another, like tuning the dial through eras of time. Finally the stage lit up to reveal Henley and eight bandmates out front for a brilliant a cappella opener: Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road,” a minor hit from the Eagles’ 1980 live album released at the end of their storied 1970s run.
It was also a subtle way to acknowledge last year’s many musical losses without diving head-first into Frey’s obviously looming presence. Young passed on last year as well, as did Leonard Cohen, whose classic tune “Everybody Knows” Henley covered on a 1995 tribute album. He turned to that song in the middle of the set, prefacing it by lamenting that “we lost a lot of amazing people last year.”
Those two covers were among the night’s highlights, part of a surprising twist in the 22-song, two-and-a-half-hour show: Henley seemed most energized when performing material he didn’t write. Three more selections bore this out. A beautiful rendition of the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming” featured backup singer Erica Swindell covering the duet vocal that Dolly Parton contributed on Henley’s 2015 album “Cass County.” After “Everybody Knows,” Henley assembled a semicircle of bandmates up front for a gorgeous, harmony-rich take on “It Don’t Matter to the Sun,” penned by a trio of Nashville songwriters and recorded by Garth Brooks’ alter-ego Chris Gaines in 1999.
The clincher was an inspired late-set cover of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Henley isn’t the first to revive the iconic mid-’80s new-wave smash: punk legend Patti Smith recorded it in 2007, and New Zealand sensation Lorde brought it to a whole new generation with her 2013 hit version. But it’s perfectly suited to Henley’s voice and the world-class musicianship of his extensive band. And its lyrics have grown increasingly timely: “We’ve been doing it as therapy,” Henley half-joked.
It wasn’t his only allusion to the current political climate, though he tiptoed around taking a specific stand. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the world has gone batshit crazy,” he said early in the set, before tailoring his remarks to the local audience: “Y’all got that bumper sticker ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ you’re going to have to up your game. Compared to all the (expletive) out there, you’re looking pretty normal right now.”
Much of the concert was, inevitably, a survey of Henley’s greatest hits as a solo artist. If they were all delivered with impeccable sound and style, from “Dirty Laundry” to “Sunset Grill” to “New York Minute” to “The End of the Innocence” and more, Henley and the band seemed less lively on those numbers.
Eventually the spotlight settled on the timeless collaborations of Henley and Frey. A few of their co-writes were sprinkled through the set: “One of These Nights” and “Best of My Love” rekindled warm mid-1970s AM-radio memories, and Henley gave a long and lovely intro to the seven-minute opus “The Last Resort,” leaning again slightly toward politics. (Noting that the song dealt with “migration and immigration,” he added that it touched on themes of “freedom of speech, and religion, and the arts — all the things we have that we sometimes take for granted.”)
The main focus on the Frey/Henley oeuvre came in the encore, which began with a one-two punch of “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Hotel California” that brought the band to its hard-rocking peak. But the real beauty was in the denouement, as “Wasted Time” and “Desperado” closed the night on a more hushed but deeply heartfelt note. Henley had very few words to say about his departed friend, other than thanking fans for their outpouring of sympathy a year ago. In the end, he simply let Frey’s music tell the story.
The band: Will Hollis, keyboards/bandleader; Steuart Smith, guitar; Chris Holt, guitar; Michael Thompson, keyboards, accordion; Milo Deering, multi-instrumentalist; Erica Swindell, vocals, violin, viola; Lara Johnston, vocals; Lily Elise, vocals; Scott Crago, drums; Lance Morrison, bass; Tom Evans, saxophone/trumpet; Charlie Peterson, trumpet; Trevor Neumann, trumpet; Michael Boscarino, trombone; David Mann, baritone sax.
1. Seven Bridges Road
2. Dirty Laundry
3. That Old Flame
4. Sunset Grill
5. Witchy Woman
6. When I Stop Dreaming
7. One of These Nights
8. New York Minute
10. Everybody Knows
11. It Don’t Matter to the Sun
12. Best of My Love
13. The End of the Innocence
14. The Last Resort
15. Talking to the Moon
16. The Heart of the Matter
17. Everybody Wants to Rule the World
18. The Boys of Summer
19. Life in the Fast Lane
20. Hotel California
21. Wasted Time