27 and 28 September 2019
MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV
This was something quite extraordinary. Not just another Eagles concert. And not just another “legacy band plays full album” concert, which have become quite common as albums commemorate their 40th and 50th anniversaries. Hotel California is not just another album. Eagles is not just another band.
Like many of my vintage, I have my original Hotel California vinyl album from December 1976. It’s still in its original plastic sleeve from Grace Bros department store. I have all the Eagles albums on vinyl in my collection, and I’ve never understood why people dumped their vinyl records over time. I don’t even have a turntable to play them on these days, but they are as precious to me as any family heirloom. I did cull all the superfluous albums I had never played back in the day – mostly eighties stuff I was given during my Variety journalism days – prior to moving my life and belongings to Los Angeles. But I held on to all the pivotal seventies albums that defined my teenage years and my life since, and even some albums that were worth keeping just because the covers were so iconic. Hotel California defines my entire life and has an iconic cover. Oh, and the songs are good, too.
Of course I couldn’t have known at age 14, when I went into Grace Bros in Chatswood, a suburb of Sydney, to purchase Hotel California, whose title track was already playing on the radio along with “New Kid In Town”, that nearly 43 years later I’d be sitting in a huge Las Vegas concert arena seeing the whole album played live in sequence with orchestra, choir and a few theatrical devices that spoke directly to us, the fans that had been there throughout the decades, and especially those of us that hung on to our vinyl and/or still play the album, even if digitally, in its entirety and always, always in sequence.
Because only when you play Hotel California in sequence can you journey through the cinematically conceived song cycle, and only when you flip the vinyl to side 2 after the infinitely poignant “Wasted Time” can you be moved as intended by the sweet, sad refrain of “Wasted Time [Reprise]”. A reprise is so much more than a coda. It’s a revisiting. And in this case, a revisiting of a place you can never leave.
So at this “Hotel California in its entirety” performance, which I was fortunate to see two nights in a row in Las Vegas, the coming to life of the album in the way it was written and recorded was an experience that in my entire concert-going life – 44 years of concerts – I have never quite witnessed before. And in the 23 Eagles concerts I’ve seen over the past 24 years (a mere few compared to many of my American fan friends), this ranks among the very best, possibly only bettered by the Long Road Out of Eden shows in London in 2008.
That’s a lot of numbers in one paragraph and it’s interesting that when considering this band there are always numbers, always statistics, and often comparisons. That analytical approach to assessing the impact of the Eagles at any level would likely please Don Henley, who loves to quote stats, and yet might seem at odds with the deeply thoughtful approach he and Glenn Frey had to their songwriting and arranging, and the visual sensibility of this album. Who knows, maybe Glenn was saying, “Dark desert highway, colitas, candles, corridors, woman in a doorway, pretty boys, wine, feasting and steely knives, and a mysterious night man, let’s put that all in there.” And Don might have replied, “How many miles do you have to drive on that highway? How many people at the feast?”
But here’s one vital statistic: Hotel California is the third biggest selling album of all time in the United States, and the number one album, at least of the 20th century, is Eagles Their Greatest Hits. So with a nine-song Hotel California set opening the concert with beauty, grandeur and both musical and visual elegance, and then after an intermission a 23-song greatest hits set taking the entire show to more than three hours, the utmost fact is that the Eagles are even now at the very top of their game. And to the naysayers who argue that there is only one original member in the current band (two who played on Hotel California), and that without Don Felder it’s not really Hotel California, and without Glenn Frey it’s not truly the Eagles, I say then stay there on your dark desert highway, don’t check in, you don’t belong here anyway.
The 30,000 or so people I shared the experience with over the two nights, many who’d checked into the MGM Grand Casino Hotel or its surrounding properties, mostly belonged. They were there to go on the journey, give or take an annoying bunch who were there to drink too much beer, get up too many times, and talk through the quiet, slow songs like “Wasted Time”, “Pretty Maids All in a Row” and “The Last Resort”. But the significance of the occasion was not lost even on those types, because they couldn’t hold up any argument around the mostly respectful and elated audience members who were totally spellbound by the magnificence of what they were seeing and hearing on stage, who asked them to shut up and admonished them when they tried to refuse. For the most part, these were captive audiences. How could you not be rapt when you have the Eagles in stylised stage clothes, an orchestra, a choir, a conductor, stage props (that candelabra on the grand piano, oh yes), haunting images on the screen behind them, and sound quality that even the hideous MGM Grand Garden Arena could not spoil?
It was visually grand, musically exquisite, astonishing, moving.
It’s the first 45 minutes of the set, the Hotel California portion, that I’m most fixated on here. Everything about it was extraordinary, even the performances of songs that had always been in the band’s concert set lists, because here they were being performed in the context of what was before and what was after on the album. And even “Hotel California”, which of course opened the album and the show, didn’t come until the mood had been set – dark night, thunder, and a tall gothic-looking night man walking purposefully across the stage to reveal a vinyl copy of Hotel California, take the vinyl out of its sleeve, and place on a small record player, before the lights revealed the band and the first famous chords of the title song began.
The original film clip of the band playing “Hotel California” from March 1977 in Washington DC was always my image of the ultimate performance of this song, with Don bearded in a black shirt, oozing sexuality on the drums as he sang, Glenn all swagger in his University of Colorado t-shirt and sunglasses on his head, and the unforgettable guitar duelling of Felder and Joe Walsh, the latter in his bandana and Illinois sweatshirt. For decades it was burnished in my memory from seeing it on TV in Australia, and even the gorgeous acoustic all-seated 1994 Hell Freezes Over version couldn’t remove the Washington DC clip as the forever image in my mind’s eye. (Thankfully it’s now available with more of that filmed concert on the bonus disc with The History of the Eagles DVD.)
So to see it performed not by young cowboy rock stars but instead by more sombre and theatrical gentlemen, even the young Deacon Frey, has given it a whole new visual existence, and a hint of what could conceivably one day become a Broadway stage musical, which had been Glenn’s aspiration prior to his death.
The neon sign the band used on stage when they toured in 1977 was reproduced for this concert, the unmistakable script from the front cover of the album, shining brightly and suspended above that little turntable where, after “Wasted Time”, a beautiful woman who might have been a coat check chick or a cigarette girl or a bellhop, walked across the stage and slowly, carefully, took the vinyl off the turntable, turned it over, and placed it back, and after a crackle and a pop, the strings started up with “Wasted Time [Reprise]”.
Until four songs into the set when “Wasted Time” began, this was the Eagles playing songs we were used to seeing on stage – the title song, “New Kid in Town” and “Life in the Fast Lane”, with some new atmospheric projections on the Imax screens. We were adjusting to the quirky costumes – period-style waistcoats and jackets, strange little bowler hats, fitted shirts, velvet and satin brocade fabrics. I’m not sure what the concept was really supposed to be; I always imagined Hotel California set in the modern day, a weed smoking ‘70s dude being sucked into a vortex of hypnotic psychedelic baroque surrealism or perhaps, as per the album photos, just a hotel with rock stars. But anyway, we were fascinated by all of that, and then “Wasted Time” began, a song we’d heard Don sing in his latest solo shows as a duet with one of his backing singers, but not with the Eagles since 2005. And the big surprise was the orchestra revealed behind the band, not just a small string section that we’d been expecting. Lots of strings and horns and more. We recognised the usual Eagles horn players in there, along with a few of the regular violin and cello players that had toured with Don and the Eagles. Now here they were immersed in a full symphonic ensemble and it was beyond glorious. They were beaming and beautiful. When they came back after the vinyl was flipped to perform the “Reprise” it was so sumptuous, I am sure the members of the Eagles themselves had to be in awe.
Side 2 was really the treat in this show. After “Victim of Love” came a sweet, eloquent “Pretty Maids All in a Row”, which we hadn’t heard in many years – we hear far too little of Joe’s balladry nowadays and it’s where his sensitive soul truly shines – and then “Try and Love Again”, with Vince Gill singing the Randy Meisner lead vocal to perfection, Deacon Frey on a distinct harmony vocal and taking lead guitar as well. For a song that had never seemed to be the strongest on the album, it was one of the most highly anticipated of the show because the Eagles had never performed it again after Meisner left the group. And it did not disappoint; it was pristine, exultant. And then “The Last Resort”, Don’s song about manifest destiny, with the orchestra and stirring voices from the local UNLV College of Fine Arts Choir. It became a gospel-like, almost holy experience as they lived the lyric, “Stand up and sing about what it’s like up there”.
We were in raptures.
Afterwards, Don gave a peroration and revealed that this grand symphonic backing had been conducted by Jim Ed Norman, the original arranger and conductor of the strings on the Hotel California album. Jim Ed goes all the way back to the late 1960s in Texas, as keyboard player in Don’s early band Felicity, which morphed into Shiloh, which moved to LA to make a record and then disbanded, allowing Don to find Glenn. Jim Ed went on to arrange and conduct and produce on many albums of the 1970s before becoming a record company executive and contributing to so many aspects of the music business it’s impossible to list them all. Eagles could have had any great conductor take charge of this production, but that they went to the originator of those Hotel California charts, and brought him on stage with them, was everything that Don and his band are about. Authenticity. No, Glenn is no longer alive to perform with them, but there was not a single moment in those three and then some hours that he wasn’t there – and, as it turns out, Deacon wore the University of Colorado t-shirt, maybe even his Dad’s original, on stage for the third Vegas show a week later on October 5.
And no, Randy is not well enough to perform and sing those high notes and hasn’t been for decades; he chose to leave the group after the 1977 tour, with Timothy B Schmit joining in time to start recording The Long Run album, whose songs feature substantially in the second part of the show. And no, Don Felder isn’t in the band any more, but truthfully most of us don’t miss him a bit; Steuart Smith has been playing those parts now for nearly 20 years, longer than Felder was even in the band. This is the Eagles as they are and for someone who thought, in March 2017 when the Classic East and West shows were announced, that the idea of going on without Glenn was repugnant, I am more than devoted to this final phase of the band. More than more than.
And it is the final phase, I believe. They came back after a break, having changed into regular stage clothes, and played 23 hits, the show they’ve been doing for the past two years, with the extra bonus of the orchestra on “Take It To The Limit” and “Desperado” and the only other variation on the usual was that Timothy sang “Tequila Sunrise” instead of Vince. It ended at 11.40pm after an encore including “Desperado”, “The Long Run” and a celebratory reprise of “Hotel California” to bring it back to the theme of the night. Nothing could have made this a better experience other than including “Waiting in the Weeds”, but I guess I have given up on that. And while I feel I can never get enough, and my Eagles concert-going has been more ramped up since Glenn died than it was before, aware that time is running out, I also feel that this Hotel California show can never be surpassed, and so this is the right place to stop. Deacon is 26. His uncles are in their 70s. It’s nearly time to kiss it goodbye.
But meanwhile, a small US tour of this show has been announced for early 2020 and goes on sale as I post this missive. They are taking the entire production with the full orchestra and choir on the road. Do I want to see it again? Of course. Will I? I am not sure. These last few years of crazy ticket prices have depleted me and there’s a story that I’ll leave to tell another day.
But if that was the last time I saw the Eagles, then it’s a grand way to end it. The concert of the Hotel California album will live in my memory forever more. And that’s what the biggest takeaway of this is for me – the power of that album transformed into a genuinely veracious, stirring, heartfelt live concert event. The power of a truly great, life-changing, never tire of it, love it til I die, number one on my all-time list album. It’s something the Millennials and Gen Zers really don’t have a lot of comprehension of, something I cling to even as some other artists are giving up and just releasing songs one after the other across digital platforms. The album of my era, exemplified by Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Chicago Transit Authority and A Night At The Opera and Hotel California, is a complete work, like a play, and you wouldn’t expect to go to the theatre to see various scenes of Romeo and Juliet performed out of order, the balcony scene as an encore. Would you?
We walked out of the arena after the first show on the Friday night and crawled along with the crowd through the smoky passage of the MGM Grand’s restaurant and shopping precinct, past the long line outside the pop up Eagles merchandise store, to the casino and then to the lobby, taking photos at the Hotel California installation and wondering what to do to keep the night going. But we were spent. On the second night, knowing what was coming, what details to look at more closely, there was less surprise but more intensity. And after that a kind of white noise. That’s what happens when you’ve reached such a forceful climax and it’s over. Even in a noisy, crowded, smoky casino that you can’t wait to emerge from.
It was hard to listen to anything other than the Hotel California album on the drive back to LA. And it was strange not to be back in Vegas for the third show the following weekend. But life goes on. I’m just thankful that my life goes on with this immense experience and these photos in my own life’s long-playing album.
You can leave it all behind…
But you can never leave.
Note: The photos are merged from the two nights, for the most part ordered according to the setlist. I had very different seats for each show, hence the different angles. The most noticeable thing in common over the two nights, other than the staging, the songs and the extraordinariness of it all, was Don’s dotty shirt. Be sure to click on these to enlarge.