The Eagles deliver a great one to open Stagecoach festival

[5 May 2008]

By Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

INDIO, Calif. - Without question, the Eagles turned in a fantastic performance - one of their best in recent memory - to cap Friday’s opening of the second Stagecoach country music festival in Indio. But that hardly meant people in our (make that any?) little corner of the Empire Polo Field stopped chattering Friday night when Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit ratcheted up his falsetto a few extra tweaks for the moody song “I Can’t Tell You Why.”

This is the guy I heard, loudly, and with a touch of Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused” to his twang:

“Duuude. Guess where I am right now. You know where I’m at? Wait.”

Here he gave Schmit (who these days curiously resembles Skeletor from the “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” cartoon) a chance to put his very subtle tune across, so his presumably much soberer friend could figure out what it was - and be surprised.

Clearly he wasn’t getting it. So out came the screeching:

“Oh, ahhhhh-eeee caaaan’t tellllll youuuuuu whyyyyy.”

I’d have hung up.

“Yeah, dude, this is bad ... ass. These guys are (bleepin’) aweso - dude, I know, that’s why I called you! This is the sickest concert I’ve ever been to. There are probably 2 ... 300,000 people here! No, man, I just tried to get closer to the stage, but there are at least 100,000 people in front of me.”

Wow - 300,000?! For the Eagles and John Fogerty?

Drop a zero off that number and you’re at least in the neighborhood of how many people actually were on-hand to see top-notch sets from those Hall of Fame acts, plus memorable turns from Trisha Yearwood (total pro), Shelby Lynne (sultry, righteously cranky), Social Distortion’s Mike Ness (solid as a rock), the underestimated Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (their version of “The Weight” was a high point), Michelle Branch, Glen Campbell, Shooter Jennings and more.

But I can appreciate the exuberance of my drunken space-invader, the one so dumbstruck by the Eagles that he kept right on praising them until they busted out that silky disco-rock groove “One of These Nights.” Seeing a performance so properly realized, under such ideal and outsized circumstances, tends to lead one to exaggeration.

It all boils down to location. I’ve seen the Eagles a number of times during these later reunion years, and I’ve always come away less than impressed; even at their best they can still seem robotic. They are superb musicians, absolutely, but their intense attention to finer points, never mind a sometimes sluggish pace, can leave a chill in the air ... when so many of their staples cry out for the warmth of a good party.

Yet, out in the desert night, under the stars and the searchlights, that’s exactly what Stagecoach became - a perfectly mellow sing-along hang, despite the fisticuffs that broke out down near the stage. Throw together that many liquored-up cowboys and scantily clad cowgirls with a bunch of prepaid VIPs who can’t seem to get to their stupidly-placed seats when the Big Show is about to start and, whaddaya know, you wind up with fights.

And about those VIP seats: Shelby Lynne is right, only she can say it in more eloquently blunt terms than I’m permitted to use. That too-large and never completely full seating area, eating up all the prime space in front of the Mane Stage (where all but a few thousand roamers congregate all day), is an irritation that does nothing but create a barrier between artists who need energy and the true fans eager to give it to them. Instead, those people are left stranded half a football field away. The idea should be abolished from future Stagecoaches, lest average attendees be turned off.

Even Fogerty, who never seems to let anything faze him, couldn’t quite get past the blase pall the VIP situation cast close to the action. (He never did get as worked up as he can, though it was, um, interesting how he favored “Fortunate Son” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” over more recent and adamant political statements. Still, his genial set, less compelling in its new-stuff middle, was chock-full of Creedence classics: “Born on the Bayou,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Green River,” “Down on the Corner,” “Looking Out My Back Door,” and I’m just getting started.)

But about Stagecoach being Mellow Party Central ...

Thing is, it was almost nuts to fight against getting caught up in the glowing vibe, the feeling that these kings of the `70s Cali desert scene had come back to command our attention and spread some old joy. The lyrics alone take on more palpable resonance out here, as so much of it was inspired by this same setting: “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair” ... “I wanna sleep with you in the desert tonight, with a billion stars all around.” Deeply enriching the experience, however, are those great Eagles harmonies - so sonically charged, so clearly defined.

One of the most soul-satisfying things to have done during their two-hour performance, in fact, was to have been singing along to “Take It Easy” or “Lyin’ Eyes” or “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and then find your voice coasting onto whatever part of the multipart harmony most naturally suited you. At times like that I felt like I was joining in a giant chorus of humanity, all expelling the worst of the day (the month, the year, the times) and taking in a big gulp of happiness.

I also didn’t expect to find myself dancing so much - yet there I was, in song after song, from “In the City” to “The Long Run” to “Funk #49,” jamming in place with almost as much enthusiasm as I had given Prince the weekend before. Small surprises and little marvels kept taking me aback. Don Henley’s falsetto, already formidable, hasn’t seemed so assured all decade. Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey didn’t just hit marks and execute solos as recorded, they and the rest of the players infused their work with resurrected spirit and vigor - a detectable pulse, not just immaculate professionalism.

As for the entirety of the dramatically introduced “Hotel California” here - the grand redemption of a song so epic yet so overplayed, its paranoiac endgame sinisterly heightened by the engulfing blackness of the desert sky - well, on my scorecard, it ranks as the first officially awesome moment in Stagecoach history.

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