Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ Revival Still Sounds Like a Reason to Request Late Checkout: Concert Review

A full run-through of the 1976 album sounded like the clarion call to the Golden State it always did, its innate sense of doom well-obscured by classic melodies and stressless performances.

Don Henley
Michael Buckner for Variety

Well, that didn’t work, did it? That is, the Eagles’ attempt to head off further migration to an overpopulated Golden State by portraying it as a sad and sinister place in “Hotel California.” Of course, it was the romanticizing, not the de-glamorizing, that those of us in the rest of the nation heard when we listened to the 1976 landmark. The promises of cool winds, fragrant colitas and pink champagne were what called to us, wherever we were, stuck out in the heartland; we ignored the album’s dire warnings about cruel dudes, fickle women, land despoilment, ruthless careerism and the extreme difficulty of cutting across lanes to reach a freeway exit.

But if, over the earlier course of the 20th century, people had been able to read Nathaniel West’s “The Day of the Locust” or John Fante’s “Ask the Dust” and think, “That’s the place for me!,” what hope did the Eagles have in the 1970s of dissuading us from coming out by portraying Los Angeles as a place where there was too much cocaine?

Of course, an album doesn’t go 26-times-platinum (that is not a typo, youngsters) by being a dour listening experience, however much sorrow or cynicism might be baked in. And, 45 years later, it holds up — as a document of a time when rock songwriters aspired to be Joan Didion, but also as a musically stressless, hella-good listen. The crowds that are coming to hear the album performed in its entirety on the Eagles’ current tour, touching down at the Forum last week and this for three nights, are coming to celebrate and party first, and be reminded about wasted time secondarily, or not at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hearing Vince Gill sing “New Kid in Town” is as much of a sublime triumph of great writing and greater voices now as it was when the late Glenn Frey was singing it then. And anyway, the lie has been put to the song’s cynical theme; the Eagles never did get displaced.

But not for the lack of people wanting them to step aside from popular culture. Probably no rock band that experienced a genuine streak of greatness has had such a target on its back as this one. For all the quotable lines that came out of “The Big Lebowski,” there’ve probably been none more quoted than the one about the Eagles; never mind that the Dude was not actually intended to be a fount of wisdom. The fact is that, for whatever might bother anyone about the group’s personalities or legacy, there are few post-Beatles songwriting catalogs that offer anything near the melodic and observational richness of the one that includes “New Kid,” “Wasted Time,” “The Last Resort,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Desperado” or “Best of My Love,” to name some of the more contemplative songs that dominate the setlist before and after Joe Walsh’s rabble-rousing talkbox solos.

The setup for these evenings is much like it is at other “classic album front to back” shows: The album in question is played pre-intermission — and sends you out to the lobby faster than you’d think, since albums were 43 minutes in those days — and that’s pretty much the end of the deep cuts as the second more-than-half becomes a pure greatest hits set. (Or close to it. “Those Shoes” may still count as a deep track, and a great one, but it will always remain embedded among the smashes in the set, because, like we said… talkbox.) So, for those among us whose history of the Eagles stretches to double-digit shows, the “Hotel California” playback is the main event of this tour. It would have been a cool move, actually, to make it the second set instead of the first, giving it the climactic heft it deserves, even though the chances of asking people to listen to “Try and Love Again” after they’ve already gotten “Life’s Been Good” always stood at approximately zero percent.

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Joe Walsh at the Eagles’ “Hotel California” concert at the Forum Michael Buckner for Variety

The “History of the Eagles” tour brought back veteran member Bernie Leadon for the length of one nostalgic trek. For the “Hotel California” tour, they’ve brought back a lesser-known name from the O.G. era: Jim Ed Norman. He’s the one who did the string arrangements and conducting for the orchestration on the original 1976 album, and it’s nice to see him back for the same duties almost a half-century later, fronting a symphony of what looked like a little more than 40 players. You know the orchestra is coming, if you know anything about the tour —it did start in September 2019, after all — but you might’ve forgotten, so it comes off as a surprising magic trick of set design when they seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere behind Don Henley in the middle of “Wasted Time,” and then effectively disappear just as quickly. (A simple rising and falling black wall does the trick.) It makes you wish the Eagles had written even more songs with string parts than they did, but by the time they’ve appeared on the “Wasted” reprise, “Take It to the Limit” and “Desperado,” it’s been an effective use of them that stops short of seeming like a night at the pops.

Now that we’re more than four years out from the Eagles making their first post-Frey area appearance at Dodger Stadium’s Classic West event, it’s even clearer just how clear-headed Henley was in the decisions he was having to hastily make in the wake of his late partner’s death. Specifically: he couldn’t have chosen more wisely than to hire two additions to take Frey’s place, and make one of them the MVP who would elevate any band he joined, Gill, and the other the very capable sentimental favorite that is Deacon Frey. The prettiest of the songs go to music’s ultimate pretty (-voiced) guy, Gill, who also, as it turned out, can hit the high notes that would have challenged anyone else in Randy Meisner’s songs. Frey’s son nicely recaptures the early ‘70s vibe, and Gill is there to elevate things to country-opera.

Walsh, looking as beautifully flaxen-haired these days as if he’d stepped out of a Clairol commercial, is not someone who is known for bringing the subtlest touch to Eagles shows — which is kind of a shame, because it’s weird to remember, hearing the “Hotel California” full playback, that the only song he got to sing on that album was “Pretty Maids in a Row.” Imagine an alternate universe in which Walsh has really joined the Eagles to become a full-time ballad singer — it’s easy if you try! Of course, nearly everything else he does as a frontman in the show is taken from his solo career, because “Rocky Mountain Way,” “Funk 49” and “Life’s Been Good” make for the kind of climactic final stretch of rockers that without him would kind of stop and end at “Heartache Tonight.” It’s easy to think of the tour’s final act — the last act of all their tours since their ‘90s reunion, really — as “The Joe Walsh Show… Plus ‘Desperado!’” But if Henley is not going to complain about sitting back for the momentum-building part of the show, the audience isn’t either.

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Don Henley, Deacon Frey and Joe Walsh at the Eagles’ “Hotel California” concert at the Forum Michael Buckner for Variety

But it’s Henley who sticks the two most important landings of the show… the Act 1 closer, and the final encore number. In that last slot, 1975’s “Best of My Love” proves itself again as maybe the most underrated song in the Eagles’ catalog, if it’s possible to say that of something that was a No. 1 hit. There’s never been a more deceptively uplifting-sounding, haunting, high-minded breakup song in the entirety of rock… and, as the proto-“Heart of the Matter,” it gives Henley a chance to wrap up on a song as equally moving as that one without having to dip further into his solo catalog.

But as for the rarer set-capper, “The Last Resort,” which of course ends the “Hotel California” portion of the show, it’s hard to imagine a better setting for it than the band’s longtime home base of the Forum, a sort of resort unto itself. (Maybe even if you don’t have Forum Club access.) Henley may not rise to West/Didion status in most rock critics’ minds, but it’s a song that gets to the sometimes cruel heart of California — even if it finally seems kind of impossibly romantic anyway, in spite of itself. And with Jim Ed Norman on hand to lead the heavenly host (choir now included), it felt right again to feel repelled and lured and hoodwinked into thinking we deserve California. “They call it paradise, I don’t know why / You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye,” he sang, making imminent doom sound cool. Forty-five years later, stricken by endless drought, the state is starting to actually seem as S.O.O.L. as Henley prematurely prophesied it was. But call it paradise? We know why… because, in their own sardonic, amorous, Midwest-baiting way, the Eagles said so.