11 November 2018, Tacoma Dome, Tacoma, WA
There was hugging and kissing and gratitude and wide-eyed wonder at the Joe Walsh-organised Vets Aid concert on Sunday night, and I’m not talking about what was going on in the Tacoma Dome audience of 20,000 or so. It was on stage, and it was genuine, as music veterans paid tribute to war veterans and as Joe’s friends gave kudos to Joe for caring enough about the vets to start a charity and mount a concert and raise $1.4 million dollars in the event’s second year. Benefit concerts are plentiful around the US and the stars of this one have played at them frequently over the years, but the Joe factor behind Vets Aid made for an energy and a sincerity that was palpable, and I was glad to be there to experience those vibes.
Joe and fellow music veterans Don Henley, James Taylor and Ringo Starr, and more recently risen stars Chris Stapleton and Haim, shared the stage and brought their celebrity and music brilliance to bear on an evening that made its point from start to finish. The audience was filled with fans and with vets, the performances included opening and mid-show songs from the Greater Works gospel choir; comedian/TV game host Drew Carey introduced vets and Gold Star family members in between acts; and talking heads from the veteran community spoke on screens. Joe Walsh is himself a Gold Star child, and his heart was in evidence in all the media interviews he did leading up to the concert and on stage on the night. His passion for this cause was affecting.
James hugged Joe. Don kissed Joe. Joe looked humbled and modest; he didn’t want the evening to be about him. I thought he’d be hosting the proceedings and pumping up the crowd from the start, but he didn’t make his entrance until James’s set, and then only to do what he does so well, support someone else’s music. (Ask Joe what he likes best about being in the Eagles and he’ll say it’s playing guitar to Don’s and Glenn’s songs.)
So what we had first, after the choir sang the national anthem, was Haim, the three-sister pop group playing a nine-song set that felt overly long for an opening act, giving the audience cause to think all the acts would play substantial sets. I’m not familiar with Haim’s songs and didn’t really connect with them but I enjoyed their physicality, especially on drums, and their reverence for the occasion. Then we had country music superstar Stapleton, whose voice is pure southern blues heartache, and whose rhythm section was pulsating so deeply we could literally feel the sound throbbing in our internal organs. Chris’s band introductions are famous – he sings about each member and it’s great fun – and his eight-song set was spellbinding.
It seems churlish to complain that the three big headliners of the night – Taylor, Henley and Walsh – only played five or six songs each in one extended set that saw Joe join each of the other two on guitar before performing his own songs. We had indeed hoped for more from James and Don, but what we got was quite wonderful. I’d just seen James Taylor five nights before at the Joni Mitchell 75th Birthday concert in Los Angeles (I’ll be reporting on that next), singing two iconic Joni songs. It had been some years since I’d seen James in concert on his own (once in Sydney, once in LA) and he’s more mellow and playful than ever. I guess he figures that when you reach 70-years old and sing as beautifully as ever, receive every award and accolade there is and still sell out venues like the Hollywood Bowl, you can be fairly relaxed and funny. He talked about the nephew that “Sweet Baby James” was written for, aka “the little bastard”, and held up his set list, printed on some board that was “strong and flexible – like I like my women”. He played a tender “Native Son” for the vets, of course delivered his standard, “Fire and Rain”, and then wound up his set with “Steamroller”, a perfect way to bring on Joe to join on guitar.
Then James introduced his old friend Don, whose too-short six-song set started with a slow, haunting version of “The End Of The Innocence”, picked up tempo with “The Boys of Summer”, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” (which he didn’t even credit to the British duo, but did offer as therapy), and then brought Joe on – with a kiss – to join him on “Life In The Fast Lane” and “Hotel California” before finishing with his own standard, “Desperado”. Don was in pretty good voice, hopefully having had some rest since the Rancho Mirage show nine days before, and in spite of the anxieties he might well have been quelling given the raging fires in Malibu where I do hope his home still stands.
Joe’s six-song set was terrific, if mostly predictable, starting with “Walk Away”, “Funk 49” and “In The City”, just like at an Eagles show. The standout song, “Turn To Stone”, was unashamedly dedicated to vets, especially the down-and-out vets living rough, portrayed vividly and poignantly in the pictures on screen. If the pictures that accompanied “Life’s Been Good”, which followed – an array of snaps of Joe with famous friends – seemed like a strange contrast, they also seemed like a fair tribute to the guitar player, songwriter, singer and Gold Star child who is loved by all who know him, including his brother-in-law, Ringo Starr, the sparkly special guest for the finale. Ringo led the entire cast of musicians in a fun rendition of “With A Little Help From My Friends”, an appropriate pick for the final song, and involving a lot of jumping. Everyone on stage was jumping. Watching Don Henley jump like he was on a trampoline, beaming with elation at singing along with a Beatle, was so hilarious, my camera battery promptly had a coronary and died. Prior to that I had taken many photos, knowing this was a rare and special event, but running out of gas just when the jumping finale began was some kind of divine retribution perhaps, for having taken so many photos at Henley and Eagles shows when it wasn’t always permissible. Oh well.
I want to make mention of some other musicians on the night, the house band, who are Don’s own backing band. They played with James, Joe and Ringo as well as Don, and were just stunning. Several are music veterans in their own right, having played with the Eagles and Don for decades – the marvellous drummer, Scott Crago, pianist Michael Thompson (sporting some funky neon glasses during Joe’s “Funk 49”), keyboardist Will Hollis, bassist Lance Morrison (although JT did bring his own bass player) and guitarist Steuart Smith, whose playing moved James to give him a big thanks after “Native Son”. Then there were the band members Don added to his band in 2015 at the beginning of his Cass County tour, who have become so intrinsic that I find myself watching and observing their skill and their joy almost as much as I enjoy watching Don himself. Like Milo Deering on steel and numerous other instruments and Chris Holt on guitar (could Chris have imagined as an indie solo artist in Texas and guitar teacher to Don’s son Will that within a few years he’d be playing with Stevie Nicks, as he did at Don’s 70th Birthday Bash, and now James Taylor and Ringo Starr? Well, maybe. He’s great.)
And those gorgeous girls on backing vocals – Lily Elise, Lara Johnston and Erica Swindell (also on violin) – were having so much fun. I took a lot of photos of them, too. Even Scott and Don’s drum tech, Kevin Pintado, got to join in, playing congas for Joe. It was festive and inclusive and musically magnificent.
I’ve had the opportunity to fly up to the Pacific Northwest a couple of times lately for Eagles shows and Joe Walsh’s Vets Aid was definitely worth another trip, even in the chilly autumn clime of November, all the more enjoyable because I was with friends who’d also flown in for the event, and a great friend that I’m lucky to stay with when I visit the Seattle area. Joe and his friends warmed us all up on the night, and Ringo’s enduring wish for peace and love for all was the last message we were given as the show came to a close. Given all the hellish events going on lately, and particularly in Southern California, where I’d flown up from, it was wonderful to spend five solid hours with thousands of people all loving the music peacefully, lovingly, and celebrating the veterans on 11.11.