Friday, May 15, 2009

Music review: Don Henley, steady as he goes

Don Henley in concert Thursday night
at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood.
(Photo by Tom Craig/Seminole Hard Rock)

By Thom Smith

HOLLYWOOD -- Plaid flannel shirt over and black T and jeans. Short reddish brown hair with touches of gray.

No flash. No wild gyrations. No bizarre makeup. No scandal. No gossip.

The biggest news he’s made lately is complaining that a U.S. Senate candidate in California used one of his songs in a paid political ad.

So how does Don Henley do it? And how has he done it for so long?

Simple answer. WYSIWYG, as texters would say, and Thursday night at Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, they were busy beaming that message to friends who weren’t lucky enough to be there.

With singer-songwriter Henley, what you see is what you get. He doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Oh, the good looks, even as he approaches 62, and the gravelly tenor help, but essentially singing the songs he writes and performing them well has made him one of rock’s most successful solo artists.

Granted, the mystique was nurtured in that obscure early 1970s band, Eagles, those so-called Southern California lightweights who couldn’t hold a candle to the serious counterculturists from San Francisco. In fact, not one Eagle, former or present, is from La-La Land.

Bernie Leadon and Don Felder knew each other as high schoolers in Gainesville, where they also were acquaintances with two other modest rockers, Steven Stills and Tom Petty. Henley, on the other hand, found his way west from the Texas Piney Woods. Born in Gilmer, which also produced bluesman Freddie King and balladeer Johnny Mathis, he was raised in Linden, birthplace of Scott Joplin, T-Bone Walker and Jamie Foxx.

In territory where football is king, Henley was too slight, so he joined the school band and eventually discovered the drums. That led to a garage band, which led to a fortuitous meeting with Kenny Rogers, which led to California and a $200-a-week touring gig backing Linda Ronstadt in 1969. Two years later, Henley and Glenn Frey became Eagles, and as they say, the rest -- well, you know.

Four decades later, Henley, is still on tour, a brief three-casino gig before he and his fellow Eagles hit Europe on May 29.

With no introduction (none necessary), Henley and his six-piece band opened with Dirty Laundry, not on drums but guitar, as he did for about half of the 15-song set. Otherwise, he just fronted the mike. Never hit a lick on his kit.

The only lame number was his second, a sluggish, labored version of Sunset Grill that he said gave him “fond, foggy memories of the good ol’ days,” then he added to rousing applause, “Let’s do us all a favor; let’s turn our cellphones off,” before launching a more enthusiastic Witchy Woman.

He managed a couple of stories, such as the Hollywood party in the ‘70s where both he and Jack Nicholson were attracted to the same shapely blond actress. When Henley tried to make his play by asking her for a cigarette, she insouciantly flipped him one without even looking. Nicholson, however, did notice: “Excellent work, Henley.”

“Jack went home without her; so did I,” Henley recalled, “but I wrote this song (The Last Worthless Evening) and made a lot of money.”

Adding a much-needed boost in tempo, he followed with One of These Nights, which he noted was recorded in Miami, “and I don’t remember any of it.”

He has better memories of End of the Innocence, his best-selling single and album. Release 20 years ago, the lyrics “beating plowshares into swords” ring more true today, and then to emphasize his point, covered Everybody Wants To Rule the World. Despite being a lick-for-lick copy of the Tears for Fears hit, it actually sounded as if Henley could have written it.

Henley doesn’t evoke the passion of Springsteen. He lacks the charisma of Prince. But he keeps plugging away, and in the process gives us a library of standards. No complex chord structures, no convoluted melodies, no high notes. They offer social commentary without being preachy.

After a fast and furious hour and 15 minutes, Henley and the band took a quick break. They returned with the driving rocker I Will Not Go Quietly, followed by supersong Hotel California and as the closer, Desperado, which evolved into a singalong.

He left the crowd humming, smiling and satisfied, if not inspired. Not a performance that will resound in the annals of rock and roll, but sufficient to keep the fire of good music burning.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

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